mad in pursuit notebook


A Third Way of "Believing" (Wink)

One of the roles of religion is wonder, that breathless sense that the universe is more complicated and miraculous than our humble daily grind. When modernity and its logical scientific approach took over intellectual discourse in the mid-nineteenth century, the magical parts of religion got downgraded to superstition and idolatry. So, the ancient traditions of angels and fairies, amulets, omens and miracles had to compete against the experimental "prove it to me" rationalism of modernity for ownership of The Truth.

Theistic religion didn't disappear in the erstwhile First World. But I think there were three paths. Mainstream religions became more a source of moral teaching and community activism, pulling back from the miraculous and letting science do its thing. A small but persistent strain of metaphysical believers struggled to reconcile science and the miraculous, leading us into the New Age healing crystals and the "proof" of our alien origins on the History channel. The third path is walked by the fundamentalists, who spurn science and insist on literal interpretations of the biblical creation story, with moral law superceding research-based approaches to public policy. I'm oversimplifying but you get the idea.

So did modern people lose our experience of wonder if we lost our literal beliefs in the supernatural and the paranormal? A book I'm reading* suggests that by the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, we had developed a distinct new capacity for "delight without delusion." We discovered our ironic imaginations, a kind of double consciousness, enabling us to embrace alternate worlds and experience alternate truths. We re-enchanted our rationalist world through the rise of mass market fantasy, science fiction and detective stories. Yes, Sherlock Holmes did it.

Through engaging fictional worlds, where fans could inhabit new "homelands of imagination," flat reality could become full of meaning. By joining science with the imagination, everything becomes "a clue." (You see that on the CSI programs.)

The 21st century person is comfortable with immersive virtual worlds, spending hours at a time in a geography of the imagination (see multiplayer video games or book/TV series), *as if* it were true without needing it to be literally true. Complex fictional worlds with large communities of fellow aficionados allow us to lead secondary lives where we can engage in thought experiments about our primary lives.

I'm intrigued by this and still exploring the idea of the ironic imagination. A fiction writer would like to believe she's contributing to thought experiments not merely to escapism. But also it gives me a third way between agnostic secularism and accepting the literal existence of divinities tinkering with our lives.


*As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality by Michael Saler


Mar 11, 2012