The Colonialism of Disenchantment: Part 1, The Colonial Posture of Doubt

One of the points I've raised with progressive Christian audiences in talking about my book Reviving Old Scratch is what I call "the colonialism of disenchantment."

By and large, progressive Christianity struggles with disenchantment. That is to say, by and large progressive Christians express and privilege doubt when it comes to the supernatural and miraculous aspects of the Christian faith. You see this in both the mainline Protestant churches and among ex-evangelical progressives.

Consequently, among the progressive Christian crowd my book Reviving Old Scratch, a book about the devil and what many Christians describe as "spiritual warfare," is a bit of a scandal. When it's hard to believe in God it's even harder to believe in the devil, let alone anything resembling a clash between angelic and demonic forces in the world. And beyond that skepticism, there's also a worry about how talk about the devil and demons goes horribly wrong, used to demonize other human beings.

So given tall this, why should progressive Christians invest time in thinking about a theology of the devil and spiritual warfare? If the devil is hard to believe in and morally dangerous why not just leave the topic on the shelf?

Well, one of the reasons I share with progressive audiences is this: the colonialism of disenchantment.

There are two aspects related to the colonialism of disenchantment.

The first aspect is the observation that disenchantment is largely a Western problem. The Christianity of the global East and South are very much enchanted. In Africa and South America Christians don't need convincing that the devil exists and that malevolent spiritual forces are at work in the world. White people in America and Europe doubt this, but the rest of the world doesn't.

The second aspect is harder to admit, but I think it's real. Specifically, the disenchanted Christianity of progressive Christians in the West is considered to be more "educated," "complex," and "scientifically literate" than more enchanted forms of Christian belief. This largely due to the fact that many progressive Christians, especially ex-evangelicals, have been on a journey away from the enchanted Christianity of their childhood. This journey is typically narrated as a developmental process, moving from a childhood naivety into something more ambiguous, yes, but something more adult and mature, more willing and courageous to "face doubts" and "live with the questions." Sometimes this developmental process is described as an "evolution," from a simpler to a more complex faith.

All that to say, the unspoken assumption within much of progressive Christianity is that enchanted forms of faith are childish, naive, and simplistic. We grow out of certainty to embrace doubt. A Christianity that doubts and questions the enchanted aspects of faith is felt to be mature, sophisticated, and complex.

Combine those two things and you have the the colonialism of disenchantment. The skeptical, questioning, doubting, faith of progressive Christianity in the West is the more evolved faith. By contrast, the enchanted faith of the global East and South is more primitive, more naive and superstitious. And this is, in case you haven't noticed, the colonial posture the West has always had toward Eastern and Southern spiritualities and faiths. The West, by rejecting enchantment, is "enlightened." Disenchantment is adult and grown-up, whereas enchantment is childish, trafficking in make-believe and fairy tales.

And this, I would argue, is one of the great paradoxes of progressive, ex-evangelical Christianity, how it claims to be a champion of a post-colonial Christianity in the world, yet enacts and embodies a colonial attitude when it comes to their questioning, evolving, skeptical, doubting, and disenchanted faith.

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