Praise God We're Porous

Are you a stone or a sponge? It’s a strange question, but the answer might express your entire worldview, your highest values, your life purpose, your sense of identity. So, it’s worth some thought. But let me explain myself before you answer.

Porous Persons

       In his massive work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor tries to explain many of the differences between a person today and a person from 500 years ago. One of the terms he uses to describe our half-millenium brother is porous. What did he mean? Well, think of a sponge, in spiritual terms. It’s full of openings, easily accessible by outside substances, soaking in whatever comes in contact with it. This is true especially of the “enchanted” world he lived in—a world of spirits, demons, angels, and the supernatural. For the porous self, what’s on the outside affects what’s on the inside. There’s not a sharp boundary or protective wall between our inner life and the world outside.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the “mind”; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense. . . . The porous self is vulnerable to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. (p. 38)

The porous self is a sponge, absorbing what comes into contact with it, especially the spiritual forces of the unseen world.

       Note something here that Taylor doesn’t state: sponges can soak in both bad and good. A sponge can absorb muddy puddle water just as well as water flowing from a pure mountain spring. Being porous, in this sense, isn’t a bad thing—something to be left behind entirely, even though Taylor argues that this concept of persons has, for the most part, disappeared in our time.

"The porous self is a sponge, absorbing what comes into contact with it, especially the spiritual forces of the unseen world."

       What’s the alternative to the sponge? The stone.

The Buffered Self

       Porous people, Taylor argues, have faded away with time. The spiritual world, the unseen realm, has been pushed aside for rationally explainable phenomena. Porous selves were replaced by what he called buffered selves.

For the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise within me, the crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them. . . . As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it. (p. 38)

The buffered self has a rocky exterior, protecting it from being immediately influenced by the world outside. If for the porous self, what’s on the outside has a great effect on what’s on the inside, then for the buffered self, what’s on the outside only affects the inside when we allow it to. My stony exterior, my protective wall of rational thought, can keep spiritual forces (and anything else) at bay.

       For porous people, someone or something else is in control of how we experience life. For buffered selves, only they are in control. The stone keeps out what the sponge easily lets in.


       What struck me as I read Taylor’s book was the absence of something I consider central to my understanding of the self, the absence of revelation. Who I am and how I experience the world can’t be truly described apart from God’s revelation—because whether I’m a sponge or stone really isn’t up to me. I don’t get to choose between porous and buffered. So, maybe it was unfair of me to ask the question at the outset. But let me explain.

       Cornelius Van Til once wrote, “all of man’s interpretations in any field are subject to the Scriptures given him. Scripture itself informs us that, at the beginning of history, before man had sinned, he was subject to the direct revelation of God in all the interpretations that he would make of his environment.”[1] Revelation, in other words, has always told us what things mean (interpretation is a matter of giving meaning to things). And we are creatures affected by meaningful things.

       But, doesn’t the buffered self have an out here, in saying he doesn’t have to be affected by anything outside of himself? No. Because the power of revelation is unthwarted and its presence inescapable. We can’t get away from it or even fully ignore it. Van Til writes of man,

He is made in the image of God. God’s revelation is before him and within him. He is in his own constitution a manifestation of the revelation and therefore of the requirement of God. God made a covenant with him through Adam (Rom. 5:12). He is therefore now, in Adam, a covenant breaker. He is also against God and therefore against the revelation of God (Rom. 8:6–8). This revelation of God constantly and inescapably reminds him of his creatural responsibility. As a sinner he has, in Adam, declared himself autonomous.[2]

No matter what self you think you are, God’s revelation gets through, because it’s already there, already in you. In fact, you are revelational of God himself! The Lord of the unseen realm—the realm of angels and demons and spiritual forces—buried his seed in your bones, what Calvin called the “seed of divinity.”

       Buffered selves try to ignore this and make themselves self-sufficient, “autonomous” in Van Til’s words. In doing so, they attempt to situate themselves as the final reference point of meaning.[3] They want to decide what’s true and false, real or fictional, valid or bogus. But they don’t get to choose that. We’re all, in the end, porous to the revelation of God and the realities of the spiritual world simply because that is how we have been made.

"We’re all porous to the revelation of God and the realities of the spiritual world simply because that is how we have been made."

       And on a deep level, that’s good news. Being open to the world means being open for relationship, and we’re relational creatures. Our very identity, in fact, is found in a relationship with God. We are communion creatures. We can act like buffered selves. We can pretend to be stones. But we’re all sponges in the end.

The Enchanted Life

       This opens up the door to what we might call “enchanted theology.” Enchanted theology, though, is really just biblical theology. It fronts the realities of living, breathing, truth—which can often seem hard to believe in a world that Taylor describes as “disenchanted,” wiped clean of any supernatural residue. The world is, in fact, always enchanted, always humming with divine purposes, always full of movements and meanings from the spiritual world. This can seem “enchanted,” and when we think of what commonly passes for “enchanting” in literature, I would agree. In The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis wrote of Narnia coming into being through song.

The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lilting than the song by which he had called up the stars and sun; a gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass. Soon there were other things besides grass. The higher slopes grew dark with heather. Patches of rougher and more bristling green appeared in the valley. Digory did not know what they were until one began coming up quite close to him. It was a little, spiky thing that threw out dozens of arms and covered these arms with green and grew larger at the rate of about an inch every two seconds. There were dozens of these things all round him now. When they were nearly as tall as himself he saw what they were. “Trees!” he exclaimed.[4]

Saplings from the song of a lion. Is that so different from what actually took place in creation, what’s still taking place right now, as the divine voice both makes and upholds every dandelion puff and scudding cloud? As N. D. Wilson wrote,

I see craft in the world. I cannot watch dust swirl on the sidewalk without seeing God drag his finger, or listen to spring rain running in the streets without hearing Him roll his Rs. For those who believe in an ex nihilo creation, the world is inevitably art, and it is inevitably art from top to bottom, in every time and in every place. The world cannot exist apart from the voice of God. It is the voicings of God.[5]

We live within the voicings of God. Ours is a world where donkeys speak and rivers applaud, where angels of light sing lyrics of lordship, where hope is grounded not in a full storehouse but in an empty tomb. This is a place where ants teach humans how to work, where rooted things lift up their veined hands to the sun—for life, yes, but maybe . . . for worship?

       Charles Taylor is right that we often act as disenchanted creatures, as buffered selves in a natural world, sapped of wild vigor. But that’s not because the world is that way. It’s because we’ve been lost and homesick for so long that we have trouble seeing and hearing and touching and tasting the world as it really is—as the voicings of God. We need a prayer for re-enchantment, a daily one. Perhaps one like Gerald Manley Hopkins penned, a longing for God’s illuminating presence:

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.[6]


       Praise God we’re porous, that we’re made this way—inside and out. If we weren’t, we’d never be able to soak in the wilds of his gloriously unwieldy revelation. Instead, we’d be lost stones, lining the bed of a cold, gray river.  Because we’re porous, we can open ourselves to the enchanted world we live in—the real world.

May you be a sponge this day.

Related Resources


[1] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2023), 7.

[2] Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 10.

[3] Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 8.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew in The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 64.

[5] N. D. Wilson, Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World (Nashville, TN: ThomasNelson, 2009), 98.

[6] This is from the final section of his poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

Pierce Taylor Hibbs (MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary) is Senior Writer & Communication Specialist for Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the award-winning author of many books, including Struck Down but Not Destroyed, The Book of Giving, and The Great Lie. You can learn more about his work at

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