Sacramental materialism

The lineage of Romantic anti-capitalism is too long and motley to delineate here, but its first representatives, Carlyle and John Ruskin, sketched the outlines of a prophetic sacramental imagination for subsequent critics of capitalist enchantment. In Sartor Resartus, “wonder” is Carlyle’s term for both the awareness and the ontological condition of sacramentality. “The Universe is not dead,” he declares, but rather “godlike,” pervaded by “an Invisible, Unnameable, Godlike, present everywhere in all that we see and work and suffer.” Against this sacral materialism Carlyle poses the “Gospel of Mammonism” in his indictment of industrial England, Past and Present(1843). Mammonism is the good news that money possesses and bestows a trove of “miraculous facilities.” Money conjures a “horrid enchantment”—“enchantment,” to Carlyle, is the counterfeit of wonder—in which owners and workers walk “spell-bound” in the midst of “plethoric wealth.”

[…]

Well after the classic age of Romanticism, its sacramental dialect shaped the vernacular of a host of non-Marxist radicals in Europe and the United States. Before the success of the Bolshevik Revolution gave Marxism a near-monopoly on the radical imagination, Romanticism flourished among a motley range of critics. It animated the transatlantic Arts and Crafts movement, one of whose American devotees described craftsmanship as “the sacrament of common things.” God, another artisanal ideologue put it, is “woven in tapestries and beaten in brasses and bound in the covers of books.”

A disciple of nature in the California redwoods, John Muir saw “sparks of the Divine Spirit variously clothed upon with flesh, leaves, rock, water”; the human body was a “flesh-and-bone tabernacle.” Developers who wanted to ravage the landscape for profit were “temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism.” In search of what he called a “passionate vision,” William James affirmed “saintliness” as a human ideal in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) on account of the saint’s “rapture” and “ontological wonder.” Contemptuous of capitalist society’s reduction of life to moneymaking, James upheld the saint as an emissary from “another kingdom of being”—this world, apprehended in rapturous ontological wonder. Our proper attitude, as James wrote in “What Makes a Life Significant” (1900), is to be “rapt with satisfied attention … to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence.” The Christian socialist Vida Dutton Scudder outlined a sacramental counter to Marxist materialism in Socialism and Character (1912), arguably an early document of liberation theology. “The material universe,” Scudder contended, “is a sacrament ordered to convey spiritual life to us.” Since work and technology were material vessels of grace as well as forces of production, class struggles were conflicts over the means of beatitude.

–Eugene McCarraher, We Have Never Been Disenchanted from The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2015)

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