In many ways, the answer to this question is an explanation of classical Protestant thought and the religious belief of contemporary Christians. For as Christianity began the journey away from its classical roots and into the world as imagined by modernity, what was required was a version of Christian theology that itself was disenchanted and devoid of mystery. The allegory of creation was replaced by a literalist view of the world, and all solutions were pressed into a psychological mode. Metaphysics became metapsychology – nothing more than our thoughts about the world and God’s thoughts about the world. Ideas and sentiment became the new faerie.
If the world is itself is just matter, but with a God (maybe some angels if you like), what we have is a sort of dualism: matter and thought. Most contemporary Christians, when they think of spiritual things, consider it to be a matter of thinking. God, for them, is something like Pure Thought (with a will and lots of power). What matters about human beings is what they think and how they feel. Objects do not think or feel so they are simply things to be used by those who do think and feel. Contemporaries are not sure about animals, since some of them certainly seem to feel.
In our modern notion of the world what matters is ideas, thoughts and feelings. Ideas, thoughts and feelings are the stuff that makes up what we call relationships. Thus, to have a relationship with God is to have ideas, thoughts and feelings about God. You cannot have a relationship with an object, other than having some special affection for it. The sentiment is the thing.
In classical thought, our modern construct of reality is known as Nominalism. Things are just things. What matters about them is what we think. John Locke expressed it: “There is nothing in general, except for names.” In this worldview, sacraments can only be “outward signs” of ideas. I make a choice, a decision for Christ. This is what is considered important. The Baptism that may follow is only a token of the idea or choice. The sentiment is the thing – not the water. The same understanding is applied to Holy Communion. We think of the bread and wine as Body and Blood (or less). But it is only bread and wine and can only be bread and wine. The sentiment is the thing.
This has become problematic in contemporary discussions of marriage. If the idea of marriage is what matters, then why can’t any two people of any gender not be allowed to entertain the idea? The union of a man and a woman is simply a “name,” an idea, or sentiment. Everything you think is possible, because you can think it.
The disenchanted world of contemporary thought (including contemporary Christianity) has managed to chase the faeries, goblins, and ghosts out of the world. They have taken with them every spiritual reality other than our thoughts. We therefore comfort our children by saying, “Don’t be afraid. There’s no such thing as_______.” The contemporary atheist cannot be blamed for applying the same lesson to his own fearful or unsatisfactory thoughts about God. “There’s no such thing” is modernity’s answer to many things.
But the tremendous success of modern thought has a downside. When God is chased out of the world with His sacraments and all the other things that belong to the world of faerie, He does not always answer when our thoughts call out to Him. The very doubts and skepticism we used for defeating the water sprites and the Old Man under the Bridge, are the same habits of mind that drive out God as well.
The existence of God in no way predicates elves, faeries and such sorts of things. But the heart and mind that dismiss such things from the world will often wake up surprised that God has left the world with them. The habit of heart that is modernity (for it is nothing more) is prejudiced against God. Its notions of spirituality are sad, psychological simulacra of the real thing.
Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naiveté. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again. The cure can only be found through the torturous work of prayer and repentance – all of the easier routes have been closed.
When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)