Materialist Magic

I’m one of those people who likes to have things reasonably orderly. I like knowing what’s going on and why. At the same time, I also recognize that the world is a very strange place and that (according to our faith) God is the creator not only of what is seen (Nature) but what is unseen (angels, devils, principalities, powers, etc.). This is hard to say without sounding funny in a technological society. Nonetheless, as unpopular, superstitious and silly as it seems, the mere fact that we build better blenders and TVs than our ancestors does not mean they were fools and we are wise. We are not a thousand years smarter than medievals, and history has not been leading up to Us. Nor are we really one inch closer to dispelling the supernatural than we ever were, even if we get ten guys in lab coats line up in a row to say otherwise. But some people really don’t want to believe that. And they very often end up trying to “think scientifically” while in reality turning science into a sort of religion.

The March of Science and the Rout of Religion has been a favorite theme in the West ever since the Enlightenment. Among simple people such as journalists, the myth goes something like this: People used to think lightening storms and diseases were caused by spirits. We now know that lightening storms are caused by electricity and diseases are caused by germs and viruses. Voila! The mystery is dispelled and the neat mechanism of the universe exposed. God turns out to be an old fraud like the Wizard of Oz and we needn’t pay any more attention to the Deity behind the curtain.

It’s a favorite cultural trope and it finds a million little incarnations in our culture. Just the other day, I caught a particularly silly re-run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for instance, calculated to make exactly this point. Dr. Crushers’ grandmother dies on a planet terraformed to resemble Scotland (don’t ask). This gives the show lots of leeway for the art department to create the proper ambience for a ghost story: creepy old house, mysterious candles that summon the ghost, invisible poltergeist phenomena, mysterious voices, even a bodice-ripping romance between Crusher and the ghost, who is a dashing fellow with swept-back hair, a vaguely 19th Century costume, smoldering eyes and a vague English accent that sounds like it drowned in the mid-Atlantic. It “haunted” Crusher’s granny and now it wants to “haunt” her, promising bodice-ripping emotional bliss in exchange for union with her. Sounds like the stuff of a cracking good Gothic novel, no?

Nah, that’s all just set-up. It turns out (ah HA!) that the ghost is not really a ghost. Nope it’s some sort of dopey “energy creature” in a symbiotic relationship with organic life forms, etc. blah blah. The whole point of the episode is to say everything in the universe can be explained in such a way as to make materialist dogmatists happy. There is nothing that is not matter or energy.

I pick this bit of cultural catechesis at random from the airwaves, but it’s easy to find plenty of it anywhere. And it reminds me inexorably of C.S. Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape, the senior devil in the Lowerarchy of Hell, who writes:

I have high hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to the Enemy [God]. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work–the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”–then the end of the war will be in sight.

The attempt to get rid of spirit by calling it “force” or “energy” is one of the many ways in which our culture trains itself to avoid the Ultimate Spirit, who is God. I’m not arguing for the existence of ghosts here. I’m simply noting that our culture embraces the spiritual while pretending it is material. The problem with this is that it paves the way for embracing devils by pretending they aren’t devils but “energy emanations” or similar pseudo-scientific claptrap. As Lewis pointed out in his novel That Hideous Strength long ago, calling a demon a “macrobe” or some such other scientific-sounding euphemism does not mollify the demon. It merely amuses it. Just so long as it can keep our minds on this world and off the Creator of all that is seen and unseen, the devil is happy.


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