Anglo-Protestant Privilege and Theological Conquest: an Ethical View of Yeats and “Canons”
December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
While widely known as a major literary figure and for his advocacy of Irish national independence and home rule, a theological analysis of W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) can help articulate gestures of Anglo-Protestant privilege still current in the 21st century. My goal in this post is to parse out a specific tendency in Anglo-Protestant Christianity that supports an ongoing “possessive investment in whiteness” (to use George Lipsitz’s term), by looking at the work of William Butler Yeats in proximity to classic Christian ethicists, mostly of the white Protestant variety. Such a critique is not meant to vilify W. B. Yeats or Protestantism in general; rather, I rather mean to isolate, metaphorically, a “chromosome” in the DNA of Anglo-Protestantism through a genealogical approach to whiteness in order to alert people to the possibility of outbreaks of violent oppression that are detrimental to all people involved. In other words, I am using a cross-disciplinary method to expose rhetorical gestures that I believe are endemic to ‘Protestantism’ – or at least to its “official” presentation. If I am successful, I hope to reveal an epistemological habitus that, while rooted in whiteness, expands evangelically throughout much of Christian ethics and thought, white or not. Because that habitus continues to enable colonialism, it needs to be either dismantled or transformed.
Identifying rhetorical gestures can be important for Christian ethics as a discipline because the discipline itself has historically been largely dominated by Protestant Christian men, with more recent exceptions coming from traditionally marginalized perspectives. It is true that Liberation Theology and postcolonial theory has recently provided powerful critiques of Euro Christian colonizing perspectives, but a canon still exists. In critiquing colonizing perspectives, liberationist perspectives have broken from, added to, and sought to subvert historically dominant culture. In particular, they have had to break from traditionally Marxist thought that revealed underlying elitism in its critical theory even while such theory sought to advocate a proletarian perspective as well as make room for theological perspectives that traditional Marxism saw as an “opiate.” Liberationists have included indigenous and subaltern perspectives previously “unheard” and unutterable in the discursive spaces mediatized within European-derived economic systems. In doing so, complex epistemologies emerge which attempt to “unthink” the frames of thought socially imposed by colonizing culture.
On the flipside of this break from Marxist theories, liberationist perspectives, especially in the United States, have had to contend with the ideological liberalism present in Anglo-Protestant thinkers, at least since Reinhold Niebuhr’s break with the earlier Christian gospel movement. Political liberalism has aligned well with Anglo Protestantism both within and without of overtly faith-based groups, as Max Weber’s famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued; but as Cornel West has argued with regard to Weber’s notion of “disenchantment,” Weber got it wrong and a secular modernity has not cast off the enchantment of religion in what some scholars refer to as a ‘postsecular’ era. It is clear that the narrative structure of Christian Protestantism itself has constructed a narrative of its own dominance and therefore, alternative Protestant perspectives, especially from well-known historical figures ought to be cited to point out the limits of such “official” history. This paper uses the thought of William Butler Yeats, an Anglo Irish Protestant poet in an attempt to track down a particularly privileged arrogance that has been pervasive in much Anglo Protestant thought. It advances from a frame in which white Anglo Protestantism needs to rethink its ethics from the inside because whiteness remains an important colonized space to “un-think” due to the ways white privilege continues to be invested with rhetorical dominance.
The “white male” has become a commonplace and all too facile gesture or thought-concept for historically pervasive gender, cultural, economic, national, and religious oppression and injustice. While I agree with the critiques that have brought the white man as a rhetorical figure into discursive areas of critique, I still worry that as a rhetorical figure, when invoking the ‘white male’ it is meant as “all the things wrong with our current state of affairs,” the ‘white male’ as a rhetorical figure continues to operate oppressively because it dominates while refracting discourses. The concept serves a scapegoat function while white males go on as privileged as usual. “Real” white males certainly do exist and continue to aggregate privilege from past injustices both with and without conscious awareness of that privilege – but the rhetorical figure of the ‘white male’ has come to function and operate in ways that dominate discourses that intentionally seek to dismantle white power. Critical thinking needs a better reference point, and in suggesting that is so, I am not seeking to let white males off the hook for past injustices perpetrated through their racial privilege. Many have argued that the rhetorical privilege of “whiteness” maintains its sense of its own power through its ability to “locate” the other while remaining intangible (at least to itself). This nominative gesture privileges whiteness in a grammar of subject-object that is archaic, not only in civil and human rights discourse but in twenty-first century ontology. Whiteness itself is understudied, at least in part because of the fact that such focused studies always risk merely perpetuating a discursive dominance of white figures. White people who ethically want to dissociate themselves from historical white oppression often seek more nuanced expressions of identity as a way to obfuscate their culpability but inevitably merely “locate” themselves with the same inherited privileges that their whiteness affords. White Protestant oppression exists, I believe, in its Anglo form due to a particular history of Protestantism and Anglicanism present in Western Europe. Looking to an Irish poet will help me articulate some of that history.
My methodology, however, is informed by critiques in border thinking. As hinted at with my genetic reference above, I am influenced by some continental thinkers from the European “white male” canon such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, as well as by Roberto Esposito and Giorgio Agamben (who are Italian). I am also, however, influenced by border thinkers such as Gloria Anzaldua and Walter Mignolo, feminists such as Lauren Berlant, and Latino/a ethicists, such as Miguel De La Torre, and postcolonial thinkers such as Michael Taussig. I draw particular writing influence here from Aja Martinez’s “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s “Fit” in the Academy.” Martinez’s article from the 2014 issue of the journal Composition Studies, in which she argues for the inclusion of traditionally marginalized perspectives through the use of “counterstory” or “counter-narrative” against a “stock narrative.”
Canonical narratives tend to be “stock” narratives, and the canon of Christian ethics has been traditionally white and male, as has the English literary canon – though both have strived in more recent years to be more inclusive. A typical undergraduate student in English literature is highly likely to come into contact at some point with W. B. Yeats; however, Yeats’s relationship to religion in general –let alone his unique brand of Protestantism – are unlikely to be touched on (at least in American universities). As Martinez notes, out of every 100 Chican@s in higher education, about .02 finish doctoral degrees, even though since the 2000 U.S. census, the Chican@ population is “the fastest growing population in the academy.” Despite attempts at more inclusive curriculum, canonical figures, like colonizer thinking, are not going away soon (enough). It is not merely a matter of representation (on a syllabus, for example), and if scholars are to continue to teach privileged figures, they ought to be able to point out what makes them useful for study. Yeats is particularly useful because even with his canonical status, his relationship to religion challenges Protestant thinking in important ways. Irish studies has also had a uniquely formative role in postcolonial studies as well.
Anglo-Protestantism has certainly benefited historically from a European colonizing project that is difficult to separate from evangelical impulses in their interpretation of Christianity itself. Christianizing and colonizing have worked together since the Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify European land grabbing in the Americas. But Christianizing and colonizing also work together among historically mostly white people in England and Ireland. While Christianity has long been present in Ireland, it also has a long history of mixing with pre-Christian pagan and folk belief. After King Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic Church in 1536, he conquered Ireland in 1541. By the early 1600s, under James I, Scottish and English Protestants had set up the Ulster Plantation in what is now Northern Ireland. This began what would become the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, whereby Catholic “peasants” were oppressed and unable to hold land or full citizenship. The situation intensified after the Glorious Revolution in which Catholic James II was deposed in 1688 and the Protestant William of Orange replaced him as King of England in 1689. James II had sought refuge in Catholic Ireland hoping to reclaim the throne but was sorely defeated. Fear of a Catholic revolt left the Northern Protestant’s with a lasting paranoia fearing that in a home-ruled Ireland the Catholics would turn and oppress them. Not all Protestants in Ireland were “Orange men,” however. Yeats’s family background was part of this privileged class, though by the 1880s when he was beginning his literary career his family had lost nearly all its previous fortune. Like many Protestants whose families had been part of the Ascendancy, Yeats had a natural inclination toward Ireland, which he regarded as his homeland (even though he spent large portions of his childhood in England). As a young man he became involved with meetings of the Young Ireland Movement (which had attempted a revolution in 1848) and the Fenian movement which had begun in the United States after a mass exodus of Irish people left Ireland due to the famine in the 1840s. By the late 1860s the Fenians had began committing acts of terrorism against the British government, and while much of their violence had ended by the end of the 1870s, Yeats became a favorite disciple of John O’Leary, a Fenian leader, during the late 1880s. However, his ethical grounding within an enchanted notion of Irish folk religion blended with Protestantism, as the Yeats scholar Sinead Garrigan Mattar has written, importantly precedes his radical politics.
In what follows, I present W. B. Yeats as a counterstory to the stock story of major white male figures who shape the Christian ethical canon of the 21st century. In doing so, I am simultaneously offering a counter-reading of Yeats to literary critics who have been traditionally allergic to his theological and spiritual interests, largely because of an Anglo-Protestant ethnocentrism among scholars who cannot take seriously the alternate theology or ethics implied by the theology he developed. Also, while Yeats’s ethics attempt to incorporate traditional Irish culture may have played a part both in his literary work and participation in the newly formed Irish government during the early 1920s, which is important to postcolonial thought, I hope to show that Irish faery and folk religion in Yeats’s presentation ought not be confused with indigenous spiritual practices in other nations. This makes Yeats’s case especially relevant to thinking about “alternative” religious practices in the 21st century.
It is ethically crucial that white Protestantism be examined internally for the colonizing gestures endemic to its thinking, both inside and outside of traditional church settings. “New Age” thought has continued universalizing colonial mission by confusing the practices of magic and mysticism emergent in counter-Enlightenment thought with indigenous spiritual practices around the world. At the same time, the “New Age” movement took hold partly because Anglo Protestant dominance “disenchanted” religious discourse. As Max Weber’s term suggests, Protestant “disenchantment” came about by its alignment with the “spirit” of modern capitalism. If capitalism is by nature “disenchanted” then by an oppositional square of logic, anything “anti-capitalist” becomes enchanted. This was essentially the social gospel movement’s position during the late nineteenth century as it critiqued materialism, but in seeking to be modern and scientific through social research, the movement also gave up religious appeals to the supernatural and so repressed its own enchantment as being atavistic.
More recently, however, even “big name” scholars have challenged the historical efficacy of Protestant “disenchantment. For example, in a dialogue with Judith Butler published as The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Cornel West echoed what many others have been saying when he said that Max Weber’s thesis regarding secularization as the “disenchantment of the world – resulting in fewer commitments to God-talk – is not true.” There has been a shift towards immanence over transcendence that in turn intensifies an “enchanted” immanence. In a 2009 essay collection entitled, The Re-Enchantment of the World, editors Joshua Landy and Michael Saler challenge the standard narrative of secularization, along Max Weber’s term, “disenchantment.” They claim that
the world must be enchanted anew – human flourishing requires it – for those who wish to be consistent in their adoption of secular rationality. It must be enchanted with dignity, which is to say in concord with secular rationality, in full awareness of pluralism and contingency. And it must be multiply enchanted, so as to satisfy again all pressing demands satisfied by religion.
Yet Landy and Saler’s collection positions itself carefully against what they call “atavism” with regard to re-enchantment, claiming that their version of re-enchantment is not “the periodic resurgence of traditional ideas and practices,” of which they claim exorcism as one. “Re-enchantment” is not just a New Age phenomenon in a “postsecular” world. Weber’s claims about disenchanted modern Protestantism were near the end of the First World War and the long-awaited Independence of Ireland from colonial rule occurred just after. Among the members of Parliament for the fledgling Republic was and aged poet named William Butler Yeats, whose interests in faeries, folk magic, and mysticism had helped aesthetically delineate an Irish identity that transcended the Protestant-Catholic divide that had characterized the new country’s political struggle for independence from England.
Yeats has often been read as an early postmodernist due to his famous lines like “the center cannot hold,” and he has been seen as a rather heroic figure for New Age ‘re-enchanted’ religion. Outside of the Irish political context, however, Yeats’s words lose their meaning to an inherently colonial essentialism in the form of perennialism. It is therefore important to remind broader audiences of Yeats’s historical context. Yeats, although from a background of the well-to-do “Protestant Ascendency,” developed a religious perspective far from the disenchanted modernism Weber had described and even farther from what emergent Christian ethicists of the period were formulating. Read in postsecular terms of religious enchantment, Yeats is both canonical and radical. Reading him against canonical Christian ethicists allows some refracted light to highlight part of white Protestant psychology. Much of this crosses over into a discussion of “nature,” and we ought to hold in tension the genealogical metaphor I began with and this other metaphor of psychology through refracted light here. In order for me to characterize Yeats against the dominant narrative, let me begin with a “stock” story of major white male figures influencing late nineteenth and early twentieth century Christian ethics.
Stock Story: The White Male Canon
Utilitarianism certainly sets the stage for late nineteenth and early twentieth century ethics, which is when Yeats came of age. John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism was first published as a series of articles in the early 1860s in Fraser’s Magazine, which was traditionally aligned with Tory politics. By publishing in this magazine, Mill directed work toward a politically conservative political readership aligned with Protestantism but also upholding the British monarchy and the Anglican Church. Although Mill did not align his own philosophy with Anglican doctrine, the political leanings of the magazine’s readership are significant for contextualizing his thought historically. Utilitarianism concerns itself with the question of the most good, itself an ancient philosophical problem, in the context of modernity. It is significant that Mill contextualizes his project against the backdrop of modern science and inductive methods. He is against both an eternally fixed concept of the summon bonum and a “faculty” sense of the most good, which he aligns with a Kantian “intuitive” tradition. He suggests rather that the most good be sought in experience. This distinguishes Mill from the proto-liberal thinking in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which presents a manufactured, “poetic” (in the sense of poiesis) sense of contractual law built as an autonomous structure away from a state of nature. A humanist in his approach, Mill has a more optimistic anthropology than Hobbes in the sense that he sees humans as capable of ascertaining the most good through reason. The theological underpinnings of Mill’s concept of reason are important, however. In his work, reason is neither immanent (in nature, as a moral tradition we might associate with “natural law” and Aquinas) nor transcendently Protestant in a Kantian sense. I think that J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism might specifically speak to Anglican politics because his sense of reason also walks a line between transubstantiation and consubstantiation with respect to ‘reason’ without commenting on just how much of the divine may be involved in its maintenance. Mill’s utilitarianism is not atheistic, however, and it is in that way more “enchanted” than Jeremy Bentham’s may have been may have been.
For Mill, something larger than the individual compels him or her to action. He famously writes:
All action is for the sake of some end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and colour from the end to which they are subservient. When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.
The means do not justify the end, even if one thinks that he or she ascertains the end. This is theologically consistent with a Christian notion of parousia and a coming “end” that exceeds human capacities of knowing. The mystery of that end, nevertheless, does not limit what is actionable in terms of daily human life. There appears to be an optimistic sense of Providence at work in Mill. In other words, Mill maintains a kind of salvation history.
Utilitarianism speaks well to a colonizing position because it maximizes the growth of a population at the level of the species. This is perhaps counterintuitive because it also builds on a discourse of autonomy and “natural” rights that goes back to the scholastics. The essential feature of the tradition is that certain unalienable rights apply increasingly to individual subjects. At first articulated as “negative” freedoms, such as freedom from tyranny, they become “positive” over time, especially in human rights discourse that holds equal accessibility as a baseline for a liberal economy. It is important to note that Europeans have a long history of a fantasy-structure that sees civilization as arising from a “state of nature” – even in its virtual forms such as a John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” or Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception,” which he says is “in truth” a state of nature. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes his “original state” as like the state of nature and even claims that, “[c]ontract theory agrees, then, with utilitarianism in holding that the fundamental principles of justice quite properly depend upon the natural facts about men in society. This dependence is made explicit by the description of the original position.” The “original position” / “state of nature” always performs a kind of leveling to theoretically proceed from a more equitable base. In that sense, it often acts as a fictional tabula rasa.
This fictional move is even present in the methodology of recent ethical theories such as Richard Taylor’s “Suekil” culture which allows him to delineate a privileged narrative of western ethics without being responsible to western injustices because “it’s just fiction.” Taylor, like Stanley Hauerwas, eschews European modernity, but Taylor does so for classical “virtue ethics” while Hauerwas does so for an anti-liberal deauthentication of the Protestant Reformation as a revolution in media that has nothing to do with “true” Christian ethics. But despite their attempts to overcome modernity and utilitarianism, Rawls, Taylor, and Hauerwas do not escape the privileged discursive space forged for them by modern Christian ethical thinkers like Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s detachment of ethics (metaphysics) from nature (physics) effects a utopic and virtual mental space from which the work of Providence or “salvation” is to do its work overtime and exceeding an individuals life. Immanuel Kant, in the introduction to Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals calls ethics the study of the ethical laws “freedom,” and branches off as an empirical philosophy from physics (nature). In that very taxonomy, then, is an anthropocentric “break” from “nature” that, as it alienates modern human from nature, simultaneously establishes human ‘freedom’ by appealing to humans’ ability to reason, certain “unalienable rights.” Insofar as Christian Protestantism is informed by this liberal position, it accesses an authority to advocate at the level of the human species for the ‘inalienable’ rights of the inviolable individual who is nevertheless extracted and “free” from a state of nature.
Postcolonial thought has critiqued this version of liberalism (i.e. liberal as “free” from a state of nature). In The Animal Therefore that I am, for example, Jacques Derrida has challenged this anthropocentric tendency in ethics, philosophy, and religion by saying:
I think that Cartesianism belongs, beneath its mechanist indifference, to the Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition of a war against the animal, of a sacrificial war that is as old as Genesis. And that war is not just one means of applying technoscience to the animal in the absence of another possible or foreseeable means; no, that violence or war has until now been constitutive of the project or of the very possibility of technoscientific knowledge within the process of humanization or of the appropriation of man by man, including its most highly developed ethical or religious forms.
“Technoscientific knowledge” is tied to a particular ability to think at the level of the species. I use Derrida (though he is a secular Jewish thinker) here to bookend my characterization of canonical Anglo-Protestant ethicists with a critique of an inherent anthropocentrism at work in the leveling out qualities of the “state of nature.” Giorgio Agamben is only slightly different. Following a Foucauldian line, Agamben contextualizes the current situation as one where qualified human life (bios) is constantly being reduced to bare life (zoe). Both of these current perspectives critique the individual subject privileged by the liberalism of Anglo-Protestantism.
Liberalism, as an economic model (I’m not talking about democrats or republicans), relies on individual, “qualified” (Agamben would say ‘bios’) subjects. Utilitarianism at its base individuates people into “ones” where no “one” may count for more than any other. It then seeks to produce decisions at the level of the species, or all of those “ones” taken together, deciding along the way what is best for the majority of the population. Although J. S. Mill argued against the “coldness” that critics saw as inherent within utilitarianism – as well as its incongruence with faith or religion – it is hard to attach something like Kant’s idea that each man must be regarded as an “end in himself” to utilitarianism because it is always regarding the end of the species as a whole, even if by doing so utilitarianism tries to protect as many individuals as possible. But both perspectives are liberal in the sense that both are protective of rights: Kant’s protects the intrinsic rights of the subject by way of a categorical imperative which privileges the rational subject’s capability to extend his (or her, to update him) situation to the species level; Mill’s utilitarian subordinates the decision of the individual to a (hopefully?) beneficent State capable of determining what is best for everyone. If it all worked out as planned, utilitarianism would be the logical evolution of Kantian moral decisions on the part of the subject.
Kant happens to be more realistic than the utilitarian in the sense that his account of human nature is Hobbesian and based in conflict. Conflict, for Kant, is endemic to an antisocial impulse in human nature, and that very conflict produces “culture” which then allows humans to extend beyond themselves to the level of the species. This is exactly why Mill and the utilitarians rely on education and enculturation as part of the necessary socializing of people. In Jean Jacques Rousseau’s terms, they are not “making men” but “making citizens.” Citizens are the “natural” evolution of humans because they advance rational subjects toward an awareness of the species level, but the citizen is not natural. Kant is explicit, however, in saying that Rousseau’s characterization of the state of nature is not prehistoric but a future end. The work of culture in Kant’s schema is to advance us individual human beings in our antisocial misanthropy toward universal cultural unity. In that, Kant and Mill hardly differ. They merely establish the dialectic of individual-versus-collective, perpetuating the same movement the Hegel would call the “end of history.”
Liberalism, as Max Weber’s work in the early twentieth-century showed, works well with a Protestant and Calvinist work ethic because in the theology one is justified with Christ by works; rather than by grace alone. Works perpetuate the reassurance of sainthood for Protestant misanthropy as characterized by Kant. Such misanthropy, for the strict Calvinist, drives history. Utilitarianism, however, is not strictly Calvinist; it is Anglican and in a way more socially progressive, since it seeks to be equitable to all members of a society, regardless of an individual’s work ethic. Cold as critics may call it, utilitarianism makes way for the welfare state. Still, in Protestantism there is something about human labor that often seems in connection to the value of one’s self.
Marx certainly knew this in his depiction of industrial society as alienating people from their own labor. Advancing on the eschatology of his teacher, Hegel, Marx characterized the end of history as the fulfillment of a proletarian revolution. With the emergence of socialism, the social gospel movement at the end of the nineteenth century brought together Marxism and utilitarianism. What the social gospel movement lacked in its supposedly humanitarian account of the “worker” was an awareness of the anthropocentric poetics of “modern” humanity. This led thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch to falsely belief that they were tapping into a scriptural tradition of prophetic literature to “elevate” the status of humanity. While Rauschenbusch can be applauded for his attempt to merge the science of archaeology with the biblical history of his day, his conception of “humanity” in Marxian terms is thoroughly alienated from a state of nature. It simply is not the same humanity on whose behalf the biblical prophets chastised the Jewish clergy and kings in the Old Testament.
The social gospel movement emerged at the same time W. B. Yeats was coming of age as a young literary star in Ireland. Rauschenbusch saw the church’s 20th century mission as taking up the aims of socialism to help assuage human misery. He begins Christianity and the Social Crisis with a reading of scripture as development from Hebrew ritual to Christian social justice and morality. For Rauschenbusch, this critique occurs by way of a prophetic tradition critiquing earthly political powers and law. Indeed, according to the Old Testament, the Hebrews did not need to set up a kingdom, but in seeing the political threats of their human contemporaries they demanded it of their God, instantiating a long succession of flawed human kings until the destruction of Jerusalem. Prophetic tradition arose as a critique of the hypocrisies of “state-based” religion. In aligning with prophets (especially Isaiah), the emergent Christian movement saw the errors of the territorialized attempt to establish an earthly “kingdom” and so, as Alain Badiou has argued with respect to St. Paul, established a universalizing religion by announcing the coming (and going) of the messiah who was the direct descendent of David.
Rauschenbusch’s social gospel emerges from this Christianizing of Judaism. His theory is weirdly typological as he maps American Christianity into a developmental scheme whereby the early Protestants who came to found a New Jerusalem are much like Rauschenbusch’s own characterization of Israel. Just as Christianity grew out of Jewish prophetic social conscience, according to Rauschenbusch, American Christianity of new apostolates would bring them closer to the Kingdom. In doing so, Rauschenbusch aligns his prophetic revival with a political-theological message for democratic liberalism in the United States. Rather than rejecting both Kantianism and utilitarianism, Rauschenbusch succeeds of aligning prophetic calling for the uplifting of human existence to the responsibility of a nation-state that has been awarded by extension of human rationality into an institution that can act at the level of the species. While later defenders of liberalism in Christian ethical tradition have criticized Rauschenbusch, in my characterization he is directly in line with a Christian appeal to universalism but he does not properly take into account Kant’s detaching of modern humans from a “state of nature.” In this sense Rauschenbusch crosses over into an “enchanted” religious frame by default because of his socialist position, yet he wants to remain modern and scientific as well.
Rauschenbusch had been paying attention to newly developed discussions in sociology and science. His reading combines salvation history with “evolutionary theory,” hence the repeated references to Christians’ forward-looking social consciousness as developing upon Jewish historical consciousness. He betrays the same salvation history as the Marxists who had little regard for religion, yet both Rauschenbusch and the Marxists buy into a narrative of alienation from the state of nature necessary to maintaining a “modern” perspective. In a way, they – like John Rawls – also buy into Kant’s notion that Rousseau’s articulation of the “state of nature” is not something of a lost past so much as it is indicative of a better future.
Entrenched within Protestantism then, is the view that a fictional state of nature is essential to the emergence of a virtual modernity. This is a particular kind of primitivism, and it is the particular genetic element I referred to at the outset of this essay. I say ‘virtual modernity’ because most of the thinkers I have cited are explicit about such a state having not ever actually existed. Nevertheless, the necessity of the fiction of the state of nature enabled Protestant thinkers to assert a temporal progression to their thinking that left those they colonized without a voice or, when a voice was hear, it was “anti-modern” or somehow archaic and atavistically enchanted. Mainstream Protestantism, as I have suggested above via Max Weber, also bought into the notion of modern disenchantment. This is, I think, why so many mainstream Christian ethicists do not appear to believe in anything (except maybe a discourse of power?). This certainly distinguishes the mainstream Christian discourse from many versions of charismatic and “enchanted” versions of Protestantism; but the canonized version of Protestantism remains the most influential. Certainly, a kind of binary thinking has accompanied the Protestant project since the Reformation, but in many places that binary has been disrupted by autochthonous religious practices that work on spectrum-based thinking.
The stock story of Christian ethics is a binary and transcendent Protestantism while the counterstory is a more spectrum-based and “enchanted” notion of the divine found in both Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity. The easiest example of spectrum-based thinking versus binary thinking in American culture comes by way of African American blues music and folklore. In the broader binary U.S. culture, if you were to ask someone “to whom do you go to meet at the crossroads?” they will answer, “the Devil.” In spectrum-based thinking the answer is either Jesus or the Devil or both of them in the same person. People can answer in this way without reference to Eshu / Legba or other figures who push back toward West African religion.
“Enchanted religion” exists in Ireland and England as well, but it is an altogether different kind of enchantment, especially because it also often relies upon a kind of primitivism, partly because of its long relationship with Protestantism in terms of governing power. In his own way, William Butler Yeats, from his familial background within the Protestant Ascendancy also initiated a spectrum-based relationship to the divine, which makes him a theologically interesting. However, and this is the crucial ethical point, Yeats’s relationship to enchantment is not the same thing as indigenous relationships to enchantment. Neither one is “better” than the other. But a persistent Protestant arrogance has allowed people to conflate Yeats’s interests in mysticism, gnosis, and enchantment with the idea that he has been able to tap into a somehow “universal religion.” Thus Yeats has been rejected by those critics operating within a Christian-centered worldview while allowing him to be a spokesperson for New Age re-enchantment and magic.
In my counter-story narrative below, I will try to address why both perspectives are wrong. For the sake of brevity, I will limit my discussion to the early folklore collection of Yeats entitled The Celtic Twilight, while I will mention some later key work in contrast. My focus here is Yeats’s prose work because of the way he explicitly navigates a perspective of belief / disbelief among Irish Catholic “peasants” who believe in and often interact with faeries or the Sidhe from the “other world.”
Counter-story: William Butler Yeats
Read against mainstream Protestant ethicists, Yeats is certainly an outlier. My main point in this section is to create a counter-story to the dominant frame of Christian ethicists by reading Yeats both within and against “the canon.” After all, in terms of English literature, Yeats is firmly established in a literary canon that has often been just as ethnocentric as that of traditional Christian ethics. Yeats is, in other words, undeniably culturally influential. But is he an ethicist? An implication of my argument here is that traditional Christian ethicists suffer from a lack of aesthetic sensitivity. This I believe is partly due to a Protestant-biased austerity in the scholarship. Despite the focus of social gospel movement of the late nineteenth century on the poor and the Catholic Rerum novarum from 1893, poor people often tend to have less transcendent, less binary, and less fixed relationships to faith and enchantment. When Walter Raschenbusch criticized “ritualism” in Christianity and the Social Crisis, he was not simply rejecting Catholicism. Yeats’s attempt to address Irish Catholic “peasantry” in his work addressed something important that is necessary in any account of Christianity. Situating Yeats within the Christian tradition therefore challenges certain biases within the conception of tradition itself. In the twenty-first century, as more marginalized voices become included in more porous conceptions of faith, I believe we will see more and more inclusion of Protestant groups who employ materially manifested relationships with divinity such as the Spiritual Church Movement, Catholic-indigenous hybrids such as Santeria, and Indigenous-Christian groups that use entheogens, such as the Native American Church and Santo Daime. The currently existing discipline of Christian ethics is only beginning to offer a way for these perspectives to be addressed, as books like Stacey M. Floyd Thomas and Miguel De La Torre’s Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins cant attest.
An ethical problem arises, however, as material enchantment enters mainstream religious discourse. As we can see with the New Age movement’s colonizing of American Indian spirituality and trends such as ayahuasca tourism, white-privilege has a tendency to perpetuate longstanding colonial genocide. When people lump different traditions of enchantment together, they erase a spiritual potency. This can also be seen tragically in the case of Mazatec “wise woman,” Maria Sabina, whose “Mushroom Ceremony” was recorded by Smithsonian museum researchers (and the CIA) in the late 1950s, inspiring waves of liberal youth from the United States and the La Onda movement in Mexico to descend upon her small Oaxacan village seeking her spiritual guidance to trip on mushrooms. By the 1980s, after years of exploitation, Sabina claimed that the mushrooms had lost their spiritual power. Sabina (2003) tells her biographer, Alvaro Estrada, “from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children [mushrooms] lost their purity. They lost their force; they spoiled them. From now on they won’t be of any use. There’s no remedy for it.” Psychedelic or entheogenic religious perspectives remain distressingly unaware of the white privilege that allows for colonizing indigenous enchantment. Often times a kind of weak Gnosticism accompanies attempts to hybridize spirituality. And yet, no academic paper is going to stop people from seeking spirituality even when that seeking is spiritually destructive to other people. In focusing on Yeats’s relationship to enchantment, then, I am focusing on an Anglo-Protestant perspective on enchantment that can help us more ethically understand how to approach an ethical inclusion of materially enchanted religious perspectives in the twenty-first century.
While Yeats is a major figure in literary modernism, his literary critics have been traditionally allergic to taking seriously his relationship to spirituality. This has led recent critics to call for more attention to the enchanted aspects of his work. Sinéad Garrigan Mattar’s work, for example, has focused on how writers of the Irish Revival during the 1890s have long been misunderstood “because its complex and varied politics have been seen as depending on a particularly uncomplicated attitude toward the past.” She goes on: “Whether the primitivists be Gaelic Leaguers, Irish-Irelanders, or the Anglo-Irish, the methodology for appropriating primitive history has been seen as being little more than a ‘backward glance,’ – a nostalgic and sentimental emulation – however complex the political motivations behind it.” In his folkloric study, the young Yeats attempted to write himself into Irish national history by returning to pre-Christian Irish mythology. In doing so, he sought to revive and invoke a national space beyond the Catholic-Protestant binary that had shaped much of the country’s strife with respect to English colonization. His political agenda and his literary aspirations both combined to form a kind of primitivism that cannot be written off as merely romantic or merely essentialist, as has often been the case in criticism.
Yeats published his collection of Irish folk and faery-lore entitled The Celtic Twilight in 1893. Although he had published earlier collections of Irish mythology and folklore, the significant contribution to The Celtic Twilight is the insertion of a narrative voice, presumably Yeats himself, who negotiates belief and disbelief among his “peasant” informants. Seamus O’Medley has also focused on the highly constructed persona of the narrator in The Celtic Twilight:
the text reveals a writer struggling with a well thought-out artistic and political goal. But what animates the text is the struggle between Yeats’s efforts at cultural unity and the uncontainable problems of class, religion, language, and politics. The text also highlights the resistance of the peasantry to his project, signaling not only the difficulties that would lie ahead for nationalism but also one of the forces that would compel Yeats to [later] distance himself from the movement.
Yeats’s self-consciousness narrator appears to be deliberate. As R. F. Foster’s biography of Yeats makes clear, Yeats was highly aware of creating a public literary persona that advanced his public status while displaying his nationalism. Part of his tactic was to write himself into Irish literary history as a revivalist, and though his perspective was to become transnational by the turn of the century, during the early 1890s Yeats consciously performed his literary presence by collecting and editing Irish folklore that emphasized pagan beliefs. He was so successful with respect to Irish literary criticism that postcolonial scholar Colin Graham notes, “[q]uite where Irish criticism had got to by the 1890s has often been obscured by the heroic self-fashioning which Yeats undertakes, the implication most often being that he may as well make up his own criticism as he goes along.” The young Yeats affects a “scholarly” persona in The Celtic Twilight; but as O’Medley would argue, it was for comedic affect that need not be read as intention with Yeats’s interest in the occult and spiritualism. Even so, Yeats’s narrator’s persona in The Celtic Twilight is based on supposed participant observation among the Irish, and his commitment to Celtic ethnology formulated itself as openness to the common indigenous belief among Irish “peasantry” in faeries while also entertaining a supposed ancient Indian influence through a supposed Celtic-Aryan lineage. Neither Graham nor Medley focus on Yeats’s own beliefs, even while O’Medley asserts that his reading need not be in conflict with them.
Yeats asserted an interest in spiritual matters from a young age. In his Autobiography, he notes that his father’s unbelief prompted his own obsession with religion in combination with adults refusing to explain to him how sex works. Immediately after recounting this, Yeats tells us how his brother Robert’s death introduced him to the concept and the connection to the banshee’s cry. His interest in religion deepened over time. At seventeen:
I was unlike others of my own generation in one thing only. I am very religious, and deprived of Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, an of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.
In terms of Yeats’s politics, his conception of religion was crucial. He recounts leaving a group of socialists over their Marxian abuses of religion. With respect to a revolution, “there must be a change of heart and only religion could make it.” Of course, these are recollections of a later self, and even in the autobiography Yeats comments on his conscious self-construction during this period, which needed to be done privately and away from his family. While broadly public in terms of traditions of poetic and historical thought, Yeats’s self-construction can be seen as simply nationalistic; but more appears to be at work. To read Yeats as an ethicist suggests that he was trying to do with his own religion what was lacking in the prominent Protestant Christian ethicists of his period. His rejection of socialism could just as well be leveled at Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis. He performed this work artistically, but as I have said, a lack of aesthetic sensibility has troubled traditional Christian ethics. I will demonstrate this by a brief gloss on some of the stories in the text, which will prove to be nothing akin to C. S. Lewis’s Protestant aesthetic argument for training youth to fight WWIII in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Yeats’s narrator moves between insider and outsider status in The Celtic Twilight. Positioning himself as an interpreter for the urbane in “Village Ghosts,” the reader is told, “[w]e listen to eloquent speaking, read books and write them, settle all the affairs of the universe. The dumb village multitudes pass on unchanging; the feel of the spade in the hand is no different for all our talk: good seasons and bad follow each other as of old.” But a sentence later Yeats makes an important distinction: “The ancient map-makers wrote across unexplored regions, ‘Here are lions.’ Across the villages of fisherman and turners of the earth, so different are these from us, we can write but one line that is certain, ‘Here are ghosts.’” The evident colonizing in the map-making metaphor aside, what is especially important is the characterization of living people as ghosts from a bygone time, as if they themselves do not know that they are dead – let alone that someone apparently named Yeats is attempting to protect the dead.
It becomes clear as the tale moves along that the faeries, the “children of Lilith,” in a way protect these peasant “ghosts” with their paths. On one path, one of “the good people” stops in to warn a couple whose door is unlocked about the evil that lurks outside. The tale quickly transitions to another path into town haunted by the wife of a Protestant clergyman, Mrs. Stewart, whose ghost “was never known to harm any one” but who resides near the haunting ground of “a more remarkable” spirit,” one Mrs. Montgomery, whose drunken husband’s abuse destroys her once-stout body, leaving both her and the children to starve to death. “She got very thin,” we are told, and after passing came back to repeatedly haunt one Mrs. Kelly until Mrs. Kelly sought help from a priest. The priest, at first disbelieving, eventually advises her to speak to the spirit. The spirit wants her children removed from the workhouses they were sent to because of her living husband’s neglect. Once the children are taken from the workhouses and masses have been said for the ghost is said to have never appeared again. The end of the tale recounts situations where “house ghosts” are harmless and even at times helpful reminders of etiquette with respect to the dead. The farmers and laborers “do not fear the spirits too much to feel an artistic an humorous pleasure in their doings. The ghosts themselves share in their quaint hilarity.” But again, ghosts ought to be distinguished from Faery folk, who appear to live alongside both the living and dead.
Faeries, we are told in “The Sorcerers,” operate in proximity to a dichotomy between darkness and light. Faeries are distinct from ghosts in the sense that they are the autochthonous inhabitants of Ireland, before the Milesian and Aryan-Celts arrived on the isle. We are told in “The Sorcerers” that they indeed have the power to move physical objects and their “dim powers” have an effect on Yeats’s narrator similar to an experience in his own life during a séance.
In “The Devil,” Yeats’s narrator responding to a report from a “Mayo woman” informs the reader that what people call the Devil may not be him at all, “but some poor wood spirit whose cloven feet had got him into trouble.” Here a sylvan or pan-like anatomy accompanies a Christian misreading of pagan folk. In “Happy and Unhappy Theologians,” another Mayo woman describes faeries as “fallen angels.” When Yeats’s narrator reports to her the story of a woman who fainted at the sight of a faery, the May Woman says, “It could not have been a faery, but some bad thing, nobody could faint at a faery. It was a demon. I was not afraid when they near put me, and the bed under me, out through the roof.” The same woman tells the narrator: “the faeries are the best of neighbors. If you do good to them they will do good to you, but they don’t like you to be on their path.” In part two of the story, we get a further commentary on the classical and pan-like visage of faeries. A man who is not well-disposed toward faeries, the narrator tells us: is especially angry with the people of faery, and describes the faun-like feet that are so common among them, who are indeed children of Pan, to prove them children of Satan.” The narrative push in The Celtic Twilight favors the “happy” theologian at peace with the faery folk over the “unhappy” theologian who can only approach the from within a Christian sensibility; thus, for both the woman and the man in the tale, faeries may be called “fallen angels,” but for one such a state does not occlude their goodness while simultaneously for the other it exemplifies their evil.
Gender appears to be hinted at here. In his autobiography, Yeats remembers that the inspiration for “Village Ghosts” came from conversations his mother would have over tea with a servant, a fisherman’s wife: “She read no books, but she and the fisherman’s wife would tell each other stories that Homer might have told, pleased with any moment of sudden intensity and laughing together over any point of satire.” The authenticity of the folktale abides within the oral storytelling of two women who are compared with Homer. Despite the implied self-congratulation at being the one to write down and found a new civilization here, the radical collapse of literary civilization and oral tradition here is striking even if a bit cliché. Although he is certainly not free of his own snobbery, Yeats does counter the place of classical education and allusion in late Victorian literary society – perhaps something his own difficulties with foreign languages nurtured.
From a theological perspective, The Celtic Twilight creates a narrative environment capable of holding multiple faith perspectives. The presence of the faeries, whether they be benign or malignant, are able to cut across the immanent and transcendent binary. Their world is neither entirely independent nor entirely dependent on the mortal world, but as time goes on, only marginalized people tend to encounter faeries. In “Kidnappers,” Yeats writes that “so greatly has the power of Faery dwindled, that there are non but peasants in these sad chronicles of mine.” There is more than a merely romantic homesickness and anti-modern sentiment at work here, more than what has taken place “since that decadence we call progress, set beauty in its place.”
In “Regina, Regina, Pigmeorum, Veni,” Yeats’s narrator calls to the border space of the faery queen who tells him it “would not be lawful to know” what existing people he knows were at one time faeries. Recall also the strange 1902 addition to Celtic Twilight entitled “Swine of the Gods” where some Connaught Fenians who are out drilling come across “a very thin, long-legged pig of the old Irish sort, and the pig began to follow them.” As the pig follows them, one man jokes that the pig is a fairy pig, and all the men begin to run to keep up the joke. But the pig does not stop, and the soldiers’ laughter turns to fear as the pig chases them to their car and then into a village, disappearing when one points a rifle at it and unable to be seen when the Fenian men tell the villagers who promptly go out to chase it away. Like the narrator, it is not for these men to know. Again, we have an appeal to an autochthonous and “primitive” legality that would precede colonial law as well as Fenian revolt and that cannot be addressed if Yeats is written off as merely displaying romantic primitivism or essentialism. The “law” here appears to be quasi-cosmological in the fact that we do not know the author or governing authority that gives force to it; indeed, it appears to supersede all known sovereignty, even the sovereignty of the faery queen. Importantly, such law also appears to exceed a Christian cosmology yet nevertheless remain present and enforceable in Yeats’s Ireland. I believe that the force that gives presence to this law of unknowing is an important political-theological contribution that Yeats’s work – even in its youthful naivety and arrogance – can make to a postsecular moment in history where Christian ethics is redefining itself.
Reading Yeats as an ethicist speaks to a lack of aesthetic concern in traditional Christian ethics. Virtue ethicists have sought in a humanistic return to “virtues” a kind of de-aestheticized or austere notion of human character far from Greek notions of beauty and goodness. In critiques of modernity and materialism they have retreated into a deterritorialized ethics that conveniently allows them to exist alongside the wrathful force of globalized capitalism. While the inclusion of traditionally marginalized voices and border consciousness will help bring “the ethical” critique back into ethics while also allowing versions of Christianity based in enchanted materialism to come into broader religious studies discourse, a traditionally marginalized tradition of Anglo-Protestant (and Catholic) enchantment must be dealt with because that tradition risks colonizing the notions of enchantment, of magic, and divination from its own place of privilege. It is well known that Ireland occupies a unique space with respect to British colonization, yet that colonization cannot, for reasons of race, always inhabit post-colonial discourse the same way that say, India, can. This leads a significant portion of white people of Irish descent in the US to seek an “authentic” national identity as being officially “subaltern.” Yeats’s work, and especially his theological perspective, challenges ethicists to rethink the category of subaltern, particularly with respect to Anglo-Irish colonialism, but more broadly from postsecular (or perspectives that were never secular to begin with) perspectives. As Mattar has stressed with Yeats, his “relationship with the primitive was substantially motivated by his quest for ‘actual proof of the supernatural’ and he therefore embraced the most extravagant episodes of folklore as evidence of the failure of materialism to explain the world.” While I do indeed agree with recent Yeats critics that there is more to his “primitivism” than a nostalgic, essentializing, and romantic notion, it is also true that something about Anglo-Protestantism allows him to construct himself as the poetic voice of Ireland. Yeats indeed saw the contradictions of this has he moved away from the territorialized nationalist politics he held in the mid 1890s, and he should be applauded for that, but it is a risky expression of something almost genetic in white, Euro Christian culture that seeks to universalize. Yeats’s Irish and Celtic enchanted religious perspectives need to be read in contrast to enchanted views from other oppressed groups around the world always with a resistance to this colonizing tendency.
Another, larger implication arises from this interdisciplinary study. It relates to the continuous place that the idea of the “state of nature” plays within Western ethics, law, and philosophy. Despite the fact that most thinkers admit that it is merely a fiction, it contains within it a notion of primitivism that is partly Christian and partly as old as Hesiod. This Western notion, no matter how fictional, continues to exist in the superstructure of legal practices and disciplinary canons. Rarely do such superstructures of habitus have the kind of self-reflective subtleties that Yeats displays – and even he does not get off the hook entirely. The notion of primitivism and the state of nature need to be thoroughly dismantled in the consciousness of the colonizer and resisted by the colonized. That is a daunting but important ethical project.
 I am thinking of Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” here.
 Cornel West, “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization,” The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia UP, 2011, 92-100.
 See also David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion, Chicago: Chicago UP, 2014.
 Aja Martinez, “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s “Fit” in the Academy, Composition Studies, Fall 2014, Vol. 42 Issue 2, 33-55.
 Like Martinez, I aim to speak from my own “cultural intuition,” regarding whiteness and Protestant descent. It ought to go without saying that I cannot speak for all Anglo-Protestant folks; in fact, growing up in Denver, I make it a point here to align with a Chicana voice that resonates with my cultural geography albeit along with my Anglo genetics. Also, as Martinez argues, I hope that my work can shed light on critical race issues for people from various backgrounds while opening up more nuanced critiques of whiteness from a theological perspective.
 Cornel West, “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization,” The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, Ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia UP, 2011, 105.
 Joshua Land and Michael Saler, The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009, 14.
 Ibid., 2.
 J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, 5-6.
 Ibid., 4.
 As David Sidorsky writes: “Since the natural rights of men were bound intrinsically to their capacity to exercise rational choice as autonomous beings, the list of natural rights comprised what have been termed negative freedoms, rather than positive liberty, that is, the freedoms that protect the individual from the invasion of his domain of selfhood or privacy rather than the freedom of the individual or group to achieve its purposes or ideals. This stress is evident in the many detailed lists of the declarations or bills or rights that proliferated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The inclusion of a number of human rights that relate to social and economic development is a point of difference between the classic theory of natural rights and the theory that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Philip Steiner et al. International Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012, 328.
 Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer. Stanford: Stanford UP, 109.
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Belknap, 2005, 159.
 See also, George “Tink” Tinker, “John Locke on Property,” Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins, Louisville, WJK P, 2011, 49-60.
 Jacques Derrida, The Animal Therefore that I am, New York: Fordham UP, 2008, 101.
 See Emile, Or a Treatise on Education.
 Maria Sabina: Selections, Ed. Jerome Rothenberg, California: University of California Press, 2003, 69.
 Sinead Garrigan Mattar, Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004, 240.
 Seamus O’Medley, “Belief and Unbelief: Nationalist Doubt in W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Celtic Twilight.,” Irish University Review. Vol. 39, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2009), pp. 15-31. Web. 14 November 2015.
 Graham, Colin. Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001, 34.
 This construction is widespread and sometimes associated with bad thinking and bad politics. However, for a rather striking recent scholarly implementation of it, see John Waddell’s Rhind lectures from 2014: Archaeology and Celtic Myth: an Exploration, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIgmrnc3zyQ
 Yeats, William Butler. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Collier, 1965, 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 96.
 William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore, New York: Dover, 2004, 13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 58.
 Sinead Garrigan Mattar, Primitivism, Science, and the Irish Revival, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004, 243.