Tag Archives: prophecy

Is it really any wonder?

We are an evangelical people. How we ever got a reputation for practicality and common sense is a mystery historians will one day have to unravel. Facing up to problems, gauging their significance, gathering evidence, consulting with others, and testing out new approaches is not our thing. We much prefer to ignore problems until they become crises, undergo an inner conversion, write a gospel, preach it at the top of our lungs, cultivate disciples, demand repentance, predict the apocalypse, beat our plowshares into swords, and expect paradise as a reward. And we wonder why our system is dysfunctional…

–Mark Lilla, from an interview by Rod Dreher

“No, it’s an alien life form.”

Via Paleofuture

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)

Knowledge at first sight

“Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present.

Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight—upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight.”

—Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (1962), p. xvi

Messianic inheritance

“A messianic promise, even if it was not fulfilled, at least in the form in which it was uttered, even if it rushed headlong toward an ontological content, will have imprinted an inaugural and unique mark in history. And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs. There is no inheritance without a call to responsibility.”

—Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (1994)

All forms of time suspended

“The hundreds of references to time were complementary, in that keeping track of the rhythms of the universe was another way of comprehending the interventions of the supernatural. Sewall actually lived amid several modes of time. As a merchant he had slow, uncertain communications with his business partners overseas. Months went by before he knew whether ships were lost or safe in port (LB 1:86). But while the rhythm of the world of work was irregular and slow-paced, the rhythm of historical time was fixed in a certain pattern. The bits and pieces of news that reached Sewall from abroad fell in order as evidence that the sequence described in Revelation was rapidly unfolding. Historical time, like the phases of a war and events in Massachusetts politics, was really prophetic time, and Sewall struggled to decipher the relationship between the two. Time for him was also a complex structure of coincidences. And time was finally GOD’S time’ (2:660) in that he alone determined what would happen. As Sewall lay in bed at night listening to the clock tick way the minutes, this sound was cause for reflection on the profound contingency of life. To know this, to know time, was to feel that life could end abruptly, without warning.


Yet Sewall sensed that time was never to be understood as permanent or regular. Though prophecy unfolded, though the clock ticked away the hours by an unvarying beat, though the seven days of Genesis were stamped immutably upon the calendar, the will of God stood over and above any structures, even structures God created. All existence was contingent, all forms of time suspended, on his will. The unexpected crash of a glass to the floor (1:378) was like the crash of God’s anger breaking in upon the flow of time: ‘How suddenly and with surprise can God destroy!’ (1:418). The diary entries pile up as Sewall notes the happening of the unexpected — the roaring of a cow in the street (1:288), the cry of fire, the ‘amazing News’ (1:564) of someone’s sickness, and most frightening of all, the deaths that happen without warning. Sewall was fascinated by such cases…” — David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment