The above illustration is from that most excellent journal, Touchstone, and I have “borrowed” it from an essay by David Justice which was published there some time ago. The two gentlemen, since gone to their respective reward, are Malcolm Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer, and both of them embody a different stance towards Christianity and her truth-claims.
The article is fascinating , and should be read in full. For the purposes of this post, though, let us just say that Schaeffer defended Christianity because he saw it as true, whereas Muggeridge defended it because it mattered. Indeed, reading through Muggeridge’s Christian writings, you come away with the idea that it doesn’t matter to him whether any of the events recorded on the pages of Scripture ever actually happened in the sense that, had you been present with a camcorder, you could have recorded it.
That was the central issue of the modernist/fundamentalist debate that raged on the Continent in the early 19th century, in England in the late 19th century, and in America in the early 20th century. The question was deceptively simple – “Is the Bible true, or not?” “Of course!”, the fundamentalists scream. “Of course not!”, equally empatically, reply the Modernists. To be honest, the Pyrrhic “victory” of the Fundamentalists, or their heirs, has been due more to the unwillingness of the grandchildren of the Modernists to remain in Modernist churches rather than a retaking of the levers of culture occupied by the Protestant Hegemony prior to the conflict.
To Owen Barfield, the whole debate suffered from a false assumption; that there was a continuity between the world as perceived by the Biblical writers and that perceived by the modern consciousness. “In the standard history of ideas, an ancient Greek and a postmodern American have very different ideas about the world, but both perceive the [same] world the same way – with the understanding that our ideas, informed by modern science, are closer to the truth. There’s no difference between the consciousness of the ancient Greek and ours, only between the concepts ‘inside’ it. When we open our eyes, we see the same world, the same rocks, seas, and meadows. It’s just that we have better ideas about it.”
For Barfield, nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only has our understanding of things changes, but out very perception of them has as well. “The kind of world ancient man saw – and our ancestors continued to see until fairly recent times – Barfield believes, was one in which human consciousness ‘participated’. At that stage of the evolution of consciousness, the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘the world’ was not as rigid as it is today. What Mueller misunderstood as metaphoric was early man’s ability to see the “inside” of things, just as we now are aware of our own ‘inside’-our minds.”