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There tend to be two kinds of apparent heretics in the Church. You have those like Origen, Tertullian who push right up to the boundaries of orthodoxy or who even step over it, and you have those who have an insight that is so close to the reverse-singularity, white-hole-that-is-orthodoxy that it appears heretical to everybody else. I put St. Dionysius the Areopagite into this second category.
Right now, i think the Christian intellectual world is weighing and measuring what to do with Owen Barfield. Is he another peripheral, not-quite-orthodox figure who may be interesting and provocative, but who will never make any significant changes in the Church’s DNA? Or did he Get It in a way that just about no other writer in the 20th century did?
What I find most provocative about Barfield is the way he deals with evolution. Now, in case you’ve been asleep for the past 175 years, the triumph of Darwinian evolutionary materialism in the Academy has neatly divided Christendom into “modernist” and “fundamentalist” camps, and how they love to go at each other. On the other side of the Atlantic, neither branch has fared very well, and Christianity is, in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “as dead as shit, but he’s too dumb to know it”. On this side, the modernist and the fundamentalist branches have each taken turns at being the canonical representative of Christianity to North American society. It took North Americans 75 years to get sick of modernist Christianity, but the fundamentalist branch seems to have outlasted its welcome in about half the time. If polls of church-raised teens and twenties tell us anything, it tells us that Britain is our future, and that weekly churchgoing will soon fall into single digits.
Now, “modernist” and “fundamentalist” Christianity split apart at the very fissure point introduced by Darwin – is man the product of impersonal forces working by chance and necessity or is he the crowning achievement of a Great Artificer who constructed Everything We See in pretty much the same way a watchmaker in a shop constructs a watch, albeit with infinitely greater resources and with much greater attention to detail?
As I have said before, I think that is the wrong question, and I don’t think there is a right answer for it. As it turns out I have never believed in Creation the way the bible story books picture it – a big hand coming out of the sky and all the animals and plants issuing forth from it in a mighty stream. And I have never quite bought entirely into the modern myth – you know, where the tiny Australopithecus mother is soothing her baby to sleep in the purple twilight of the African savanna. All of Plato, and Aristotle, and Jesus, and Dante, and Marx, and Lao-Tze are there in seminis in her guttural cooings awaiting only the right set of tumblers to fall into place by blind chance.
Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase –
The interior is anterior
liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.
Suddenly, into my mind unbidden came the image of Adam “naming” the animals, except that they didn’t look like they did now. They came as motile undifferentiated arrangements of protoplasm, kind of like what we imagine stem cells to be, and as Adam sang the incantations over them, the tiger grew long of tooth and claw, the hare long of ear and hind leg, the hound keen of snout, and the hawk keen of eye and swift of wing. This Barfield calls “original participation”, before man was aware of any schism between himself and the exterior world. Then came the Fall, and the long painful process of individuation whereby man grew more and more of himself as a subject apart from an objective nature, reaching its apex in the modern physicist’s awareness that the ultimate object of analysis is likely to be of zero mass and infinite velocity. In other words, it doesn’t exist at all.
Here is where Barfield inserts the Incarnation. At a pivotal point in St. John’s gospel, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”, binds himself with a towel and washes his disciples’ feet, instituting the Eucharistic supper. In this way, Christ attaches strong elastic bands to our nature, running pell-mell towards individuation and atomization, towards non-existence, and brings it back to what Barfield calls “final participation”, yet chastened, humbled, and ready for service now rather than exploitation.
Phew – there you have it. For some reason it would not have made such an impact on me if I hadn’t just finished reading Archimandrite Sophrony’s life of St. Silhouan, especially what he said about the Saint being that towards which nature intended, all of Creation rejoicing to become a saint in the saint – the air he breathes rejoicing to be expired in prayer, the wheat rejoicing to nourish his sinews, the very birds of the air rejoicing to be observed by him.
Maybe you can see now why I don’t want to surrender Barfield to the New Agers, who have made much more commerce with his ideas than have Christians. Not only is he a good point of contact, but I don’t think he properly belongs to any group who doesn’t put Christ as defined at Nicea and Chalcedon at the center.
I just learned that Larry Norman passed away yesterday. Even though I haven’t thought about him in years, I know the world will be the poorer for his absence.
In 1972, his record, Only Visiting This Planet, was light-years ahead of anything else in Christian music, both lyrically and musically, and ironically, it still is. I don’t listen to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) much these days. My wife likes it, but she is of a generation that knoweth not Larry Norman, or Randy Matthews, or Keith Green.
Hell, you can’t even get these pussified “positive hits” Christian stations to play anything by Keith Green these days. The last time I called in to request “The Grace By Which We Stand”, about a decade and a half ago, I was told that Mr. Green was considered “too controversial”.
Just like his Master, I guess.
Norman lost the public ear after releasing his best record In Another Land in 1977. He did a lot of idiosyncratic music, including Bright Light Into Darkened Places, an anthology of “spiritual” rock songs written by “unregenerate heathens” like Jagger and Richards, or Randy Newman. but Christian music’s new darlings were Phil Keaggy, a virtuoso progressive-rock guitarist who put out increasingly blander and blander albums until he rocked like a neutered cat, or a squeaky-clean-gosh-ain’t-she-cute little minx named Amy Grant. Larry, in perfect character and to his credit, soldiered on in increasing obscurity and accumulating personal problem.
Thank you for the music, Larry. I’m certain you’re hearing some great stuff now.