THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF THE WEST, Vol. 1

by
02 November 2006

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T. & T. Clark £19.99 (0-567-08408-6)Church Times Bookshop £18

CHRISTOPHER PARTRIDGE appears to be employed by University College, Chester, to teach that there is no such thing as Culture with a capital C, or Knowledge with a capital K. Culture is “élitist”, and any idea of knowledge “out there” comes in scare quotes. So it’s not surprising that he endorses the “spirituality” and re-enchantment he finds in popular culture, as well as analysing it.

Nevertheless, at the risk of making an élitist judgement based on mere excellence, I have to say that this is a well-argued book, in principle based on knowledge of evidence “out there’” and — apart from words like “inhistoricized” — written in civilised prose.

His chosen theme for contemporary spirituality might be “I did it my way.” The immediate sources for this (along with the themes of re-sacralisation, re-enchantment, mysticisation, and de-traditionalisation) are by Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas out of Colin Campbell. Partridge mostly repackages this repertoire as the growth of “occulture”, which is roughly what Regis Debray discusses in his profound book God: An itinerary, where “The Twilight of the Gods” is “Morning for the Magicians”.

bviously, if you are reviving a standard critique of secularisation understood as the triumph of reason and science, then any spread of patently false beliefs such as magic, astrology, or aliens is grist to your mill. But for Partridge there is more to it than that, because, as Colin Campbell originally put it, the new spirituality dating from the 1960s is morally idealistic, even though its devotees are more righteous about what malignant others in “the system” should do than about self-improvement.

Campbell also put forward the West-goes-East argument, and on this I agree with Partridge, that there are plenty of “Western” sources in neo-romanticism, gnosticism, and philosophical idealism. Certainly, my own adolescent ecstasies in the 1940s came by way of Western and Christian routes, happily without a destructive drug culture; and it was ironic that, when “my time” came 20 years later, I had given up scrounging, lounging, and utopia in favour of work and the world “out there”.

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Christopher Partridge tilts, in particular, at secularisation theory as presented by Steve Bruce, a scholar hotter on figures than Partridge, and a hard man when it comes to the real social significance of the more delicate spiritual blooms. For Partridge, however, we have a significant revolution in attitudes on our hands: anti-capitalist, eco-mystical, feminist, and monist, just as the late Timothy Leary promised.

The devotees of “occulture” bypass David Jenkins’s “buggeration factor” of sin and suffering to embrace original blessing, as well as somehow reconciling a view of themselves as only animals and as free spirits on the way to deification. They also manage to worship icons of consumption and PR, while treating capitalism as a synonym for sin.

Most attractive of all, as Partridge presents it, they are simultaneously counter-cultural and mainstream. No wonder it’s all so popular. Who wouldn’t wish to join the motley crowd of prophets while being handsomely paid to throw the stones? Just imagine!

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

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