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Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
In the last week, I have been following an interesting exchange between David Theroux and my loyal friend Steven Hayes about the economic thought of CS Lewis. It appears Paul, whom I suspect of being a right-leaning American Catholic suspicious of governmental interference, found a kindred spirit in Lewis, who was certainly no fan of political ideologies.
Steve, a left-leaning South African with whom I share a concern that the benefits of “freedom” in the market sense have been inappropriately distributed, and with whom I share at least the apprehension that governmental coercion may be the only weapon available to whinge the behemoths currently dominating the geopolitical environment, responded saying that he felt that Lewis would not have allowed himself to be aligned with American Libertarianism, which is an ideology that wishes to extend to all Americans the benefits of that freedom from governmental restraint currently enjoyed by those who can afford seats at $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners.
Mr. Theroux offered a rebuttal to Steve, which Steve graciously forwarded to me in a mailing list, is unavailable for linking, although I hope to remedy that shortly.
I think that the whole problem of trying to pigeonhole Lewis’ politics and/or economic theorems [and, let us confess, all politics appears to have reduced to economics in our darkening era] is that Lewis’ thinking along operated primarily on a pre-Enlightenment, pre-“Victorious Analysis” basis.
I don’t know anything about Natural Law theory, except that it seems to be often on the lips of a certain type of Catholic. I am assuming that Natural Law is something akin to what Lewis dealt with when he introduced the concept of the “Tao” in ‘The Abolition Of Man’, so if I make mistakes in understanding the ideas begind Natural law, please bear with me. I have to admit that the whole idea of ‘law’ leaves me a bit cold, whichever phrase it is embedded in; “Natural Law”, “the Law of Historical Necessity”, “the Law of the Marketplace”.
I would like to bring the thought of another of the circle of Lewis’ friends, Owen Barfield, to play upon the issue of economic thought:
“[Francis] Bacon… was at least among the first to draw the analogy in English. so that in the history of thought, we have a here a pretty definite point – round about the beginning of the 17th century – at which the concept ‘laws of nature’ first begins to reveal itself as working in human minds.”
Barfield goes to to explain that the idea of Law, from the time of Bacon on, displaced the older idea of Form as a metaphor of “thinking Nature”. The older idea of Form, which was useful in explaining ‘natura naturans’, Barfield maintains, were the “memory of those elements which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings” was usurped by the menta habit of thinking of Laws, which dealt with ‘natura naturata’, as a static thing “which dealt with the rules that govern the changes which occur in the sense-perceptible part of nature.”
This helps me to distinguish the economic thinking of Lewis, and his companion Tolkien from the algorithmic thinking about The Market© that is so ubiquitious in our day. The Algorithm arose in the Seventeenth Century as a way of thinking and swept all before it. The United States, it is sometimes helpful for me to remember, is not a Nation based on ties of race, religion, or culture, but literally an Algorithmic state, based not on centuries of precedent and custom, but on ABORSGSIARTATBWTAADR (A Bunch Of Really Smart Guys Sitting In A Room Thinking About The Best Way To Achieve A Desired Result). And the temptation is, when confronted by undesireable results proceeding from the execution of the Algorithm, is to reach for the levers and tweak it until it produces the desired results.
The result of the triumph of the Algorithm has been an undeniable increase in the levels of comfort for those who benefit from its application, especially for those close to the levers and those who directly support them. Indeed, the limited liablity corporation and the ersatz personhood rendered to it by legal fiat represents kind of an Incarnation for this Algorithm. The pronouncements of those in charge of these entities indicate there is a kind of reverse-theosis underway in them that strips them of any concern that cannot be quantified by this Algorithm.
In contrast, Lewis champions a kind of a pre-Algorithmic ordering of society, where The Market© digests other concerns besides the merely economic. Novelist Gene Wolfe in a masterful essay on Tolkien says this in a way I can only marvel at:
“Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.”
“Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have — but do not need — a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in the world makes chains; and they lay them on us.”
It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor.”
Please note that the essay by Mr. Wolfe is copyrighted, and the owner of the website from which I obtained the above fragment paid Mr. Wolfe for the privilege of publishing the essay in its entirety. Thank you, Mr. Robertson, for making this available publicly.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the way back is the way forward. Nostalgia for Holy Rus or the Anglo-Saxon Thengs or even the Scotland of David Ricardo will not assist us in our current extreme. We live in a time where children now consider it a judicious investment to bring a firearm to school, but I do not want to return to a time when such schooling was available to very few, if at all.
What Barfield indicates is that we need to have a different way of thinking;
“The economic life is today the real bond of the civilised world/ The world is not held together by political or religious harmony, but by economic interdependence; and here again is the same antithesis. Economic theory is bound hand and foot by the static, abstract (algorithmic) characte of modern thought. On the one hand, everything to with industry and the possibility of substituting human labor by machinery, or at very least standardizing it into a series of repetitive motions, has reached an unexampled pitch of perfection.”
“But when it is the question of distributing this potential wealth, when it is demanded of us that we think in terms of flow and rate-of-flow, in otherwords that we think in terms of the system as a whole, we cannot even rise to it. The result is that all our ‘labour-saving’ machinery produces not leisure but its ghastly caricature unemployment while the world sits helplessly watching the steady growth within itself of a malignant tumor of social discontent. this incereaasingly rancourous discontent is fed above all things by a cramping penury, a shortage of the means of livelihood which arises not out the realities of nature, but out of abstract, inelastic thoughts about money.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am clueless about the kind of thinking Barfield says we require at this juncture. Whether it is holistic rather than reductionistic I cannot penetrate at this time. If it holistic, it runs the risk of requiring somebody to know a system extensively before saying anything about it, and every time I head down that path, I find myself thinking algorithmically about non-algorithmic thought, and thus get myself all balled up in knots.
The closest I have gotten is, maybe, when meditating in a grove of trees about photosynthesis, I entertained a kind of a pre-sentiment that the trees “wanted” to trap the sunlight and turn it into useable energy, not only for themselves, but for all the biosphere, and if I could just ‘learn their language’, as it were, I could find a way to cooperate with the trees and help them do this.
I think another of the neglected Inklings, Charles Williams, with his concepts of Co-Inherence and Webs of Exchange, lends himself to an economic interpretation. Certainly Williams, as a lifelong City dweller, would have a different outlook than the bucolic Lewis or Tolkien. Certainly, a good case could be made for there being different Webs of Exchange; the Chemical, the Biological, the Semantic, the Anthro-Economic which exists over and above the others and which currently is returning evil for good.
Watching the recent movie War, Inc. I saw another example of a cinematic cliché which, as far as I can tell by extensive Googling, I am the only film fan who has ever noticed. Now, if I am the only film fan who is aware of a cinematic cliché, can it possibly be a cliché? Since it appears I have few, but loyal readers, I will let you all be the judges of this.
I call the cliché “the paralyzed totalitarian”. I have seen him now in four movies. In Terry Gillam’s Brazil, Sam’s father’s colleague (and Sam’s mother’s lover?) Helpmann has enormous power, orders Sam to be tortured, but is confined to a wheelchair.
Also wheelchair-bound is José Lewgoy as the warden of the prison in which are being detained William Hurt and Raul Julia in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Together with the secret policeman, he cunningly positions the homosexual Molina to weave his way into the confidences of the suspicious political prisoner Arregui, yet he is incapable of any independent motion and is dependent on an attendant for everything.
In the recent War, Inc., Walken, the “viceroy” of sad Turaqistan, which has been the object of yet another American preemptive invasion, wields enormous power from his wheelchair, and the very earliest movie I in which have ever seen this “paralyzed totalitarian” figure is Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece Napoleon, in which Marat, Robespierre, and Louis St. Just plot together to eliminate enough Frenchmen to usher in the new day of la Republique juste et belle. The actor portraying the arch-Jacobin St. Just fidgets about in his little wooden wheelchair nervously planning the death of thousands and misery for uncounted others.
The image sticks with me, I believe, because it portrays those of a totalitarian cast of mind as victims of their own machinations. In gathering more and more power to themselves, they lose that which make them human, becoming in their turn as powerless as their victims.
One of the emotional objections I had to Calvinism as a system was that I always had a niggling in the back of my mind that the system would eventually eliminate the freedom of God. If man were not free, then I couldn’t see how God could possibly be free. Some great awful necessity, some dreadful immutable ἀνάγκη, whether internal to God or external to Him, would demand the damnation of men.
I know there are a thousand qualifications I would have to make, and I take a great risk in mentioning this. After all, the Christian blogosphere is about 94% Calvinists of disputatious temperament. I hope my obscurity saves me.
Borges says it better than I:
Lejos de la ciudad, lejos del foro
clamoroso y del tiempo, que es mudanza,
Edwards, eterno ya, sueña y avanza
a la sombra de árboles de oro.
Hoy es mañana y es ayer. No hay una
cosa de Dios en el sereno ambiente
que no le exalte misteriosamente,
el oro de la tarde o de la luna.
Piensa feliz que el mundo es un eterno
instrumento de ira y que el ansiado
cielo para unos pocos fue creado
y casi para todos el infierno.
En el centro puntual de la maraña
hay otro prisionero, Dios, la Araña
“Far from the city, from the clamorous forum and outside of Time, which is Change, Edwards, now eternal, dreams and walks forward under the golden trees.
Today is tomorrow and is yesterday, and in the serenity there is nothing of God which does not mysteriously exalt Him, the gold of the afternoon, or of the moon.
He meditates happily upon the world as an eternal instrument of wrath, and that the anticipated heavens were created for a very few,
and Hell for nearly everybody, and that at the absolute center of the maze waits another prisoner, the Spider, God.”
By the way, the movies are all good. War, Inc. is the weakest of them, maybe a C+. Brazil is a B+. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a solid A, and Napoleon is one of the best movies ever produced.
Before I converted to Orthodoxy, I did due diligence on both the Orthodox and the Catholic churches. I attended services in both churches, read the obligatory apologetic works from both sides, and even read harrowing critiques of each church from the point of view of the other.
I do not want to go into the reasons I decided for Orthodoxy. What I want to do is present a mental exercise. Long before I even felt the pull towards Ancient Christianity, I heard a musical production by a Romanian group called Enigma, which enjoyed some success in the Eurobeat-techno 90s scene.
The name of the song was “Mea Culpa”, and the artist produced what he called an “Orthodox Mix” and a “Catholic Mix”. All of the subsequent reading I did while investigating the theology and practice of both churches only clarified what I learned, on an emotional level, as being the difference between the two ancient Churches. Click on the two churches below to hear the different versions of the same song:
Clicking the link should invoke a media player that will allow you to listen to the song. I invoke the Fair Usage clause 🙂
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 have to apologize for subjecting the readers of this blog to two rambling and practically incoherent essays on “epistemology” and Owen Barfield without taking the time to read much of what Barfield actually had to say.
Barfield is not easy reading. It takes effort to follow his arguments and even more effort to decipher where he wants you to go with what he is giving you. Fortunately, I started with a book of his that covers very familiar territory: Owen Barfield on CS Lewis is a collection of essays and addresses, written or delivered at various times after Lewis’ death, in which Barfield remembers and comments on the thought and writings of his intimate friend, CS Lewis.
What struck me deeply about the book was the profound affection Barfield felt for his absent friend. Although the period of their deepest communion was a brief two years while they were both still undergraduates, the two of them were fortunate in being able to continue their friendship for the remainder of their lives. In addition, their friendship appears to have been one of those which Lewis himself described in The Four Loves; one in which the friendship is enriched rather than diminished by the inclusion of other friends. Charles Williams, J.R.R . Tolkien, Walter Hooper, Barfield’s fellow Steinerite A.C. Harwood, Joy Davidson, and the phelgmatic Mrs. Moore, with whom Lewis conducted a maybe-not-so-platonic affair for the majority of his adult life, all make their way into the narrative and are all remembered by Barfield with great fondness.
The book is as much about Barfield’s thought as it is about Lewis. The best essay in the collection, “Either:Or: Coleridge, Lewis, and Romantic Theology” is also the densest and most impenetrable. Only twice have I had the unsettling experience of reading something that I was certain would tie up all the loose ends I have flapping around in my mind and present me with a Unified Field Theory of God, Life, Logic, Language, Imagination, Knowledge and Everything. Both times I have been following the thread of the writer’s argument with increasing excitement, saying “amen” under my breath to everything he has to say, when suddenly the writer sprouts wings and the argument flies into the Empyrean leaving me quite behind. I plod along through pages of material I cannot begin to assimilate until I come through to the other side, where the writer descends once again to my level of understanding. However, I find the world and everything in it completely changed as a result of something that occurred in that upper storey to which I, alas, still have no access.
The first time was while reading Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The second was while reading the essay I mentioned above. Interestingly, both works dealt with something akin to what Barfield says that Coleridge called “polarity”. When two concepts are logically opposed, they cannot both be right any more than two physical objects can occupy the same space. However, when two concepts are in polar opposition, each one necessarily generates the other and is transformed into it. Barfield states that the proper faculty for the apprehension of this is not so much the logical, critical faculties of the intellect but rather the imagination. Here we run into problems. The imagination is suspect in our day and age since it is routinely relegated to the realm of the non-existent or the false.
You can see this the most clearly in the modern (not post-Modern) attitude towards the traditional Lives of the Saints among most Protestants and their fellow travelers for whom whatever could have been recorded by a time-traveler with a video camcorder is considered true and everything else is imaginary; that is to say – false, illusionary, leading to deception. Of course, these same Protestants take it very hard when you approach the Bible itself with the same attitude. You are either told that if you refuse to hear the voice of God speaking in the Bible, you are not likely to consider the truth if it comes to you from another source (presuppostional apologetics), or you are buried in a avalanche of minutae about Darius the Mede or ingenious arguments about alternative dates for the regencies of Hebrew kings (evidential apologetics).
Remember my earlier discussion of Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge? Schaeffer is a firm believer in Christianity as the great historical religion. I take this to mean that Schaeffer believed with all of his heart that if he had been a time-traveler with a camcorder he would have captured a woman, a snake, and an apple. To be very fair to Schaeffer, I believe this myself and unapologetically, but I am getting very close to the opinion that it is the wrong question to be asking. For example, if someone had been present with a tape recorder at the time recorded by John 12:28,29 , would he have recorded the voice of God the Father, the voice of an angel, or a simple thunderclap?
I think that what Barfield is saying is that imagination is as active a component in establishing the truth of a thing, especially the truth of a person, as is what Carlyle referred to as “imperial analysis”. To illustrate what I mean, go and see Father Stephen’s embedded video of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, where the saint, at the end of the video, is portrayed in a series of photographs as an aging man, then finally, as an icon. Now an icon is a product of the Church’s contemplation of that saint. Barfield, I believe, would call it an exercise of the Church’s imagination, as if, when the man who can be caught on video and photograph perishes, he is meant to be translated into legend.
Optimism has been in short supply around here recently. There are no end of things to worry yourself sick about; Peak Oil, water depletion, Global Warming, the emergence of new and exotic diseases and resistant forms of old ones. The list goes on and on. We don’t know what the carrying capacity is of this Earth, and the idea of finding out, as we have in the past, by trial and error, doesn’t appeal to me.
For the majority of my adult life, I believed that the Rapture would be God’s provision against all of this. If you’ve been living under a rock since the 1970s, “the Rapture” refers to a belief that is all but universal among Evangelical Christians that the world will continue to get worse and worse until Jesus decides that he’s had enough and takes the really real good Christians to Heaven while He cleans the clock of the snuff-dippers, gamblers, whore-mongers, cynics, smart-assed news reporters, haughty secular humanists and anyone else who never Accepted Jesus Christ as their Personal Savior.
For obvious reasons, this idea that Jesus will give us a brand new shiny Earth to play with after we have used up the old one has a strong appeal to Americans. However, I don’t know where people are getting the idea that Jesus is going to come and rescue them so they can drive their minivans right on up to the Pearly Gates. Everything I see in the Bible seems to indicate He’s gonna be hot under the collar. Nevertheless, my disavowal of the Rapture when I left Evangelicalism for Orthodoxy was considered one of the principal signs of my apostasy. I was glad to leave the Rapture behind me; I always considered it an irresponsible doctrine, but I hadn’t factored in the comfort value. It’s getting pretty dark down here, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to continue without an evacuation plan.
When I think about the situation in which we find ourselves these days, I visualize a large mass of people moving down a corridor where the walls are slowly converging. At first there is plenty of room and the mass of people are moving freely, but as the corridor becomes narrower and narrower, the people collide with each other more frequently. They experience each other as “being in the way”, as obstructions. The stronger gravitate towards the middle and the weaker are pushed to the sides. Eventually, there is room for only a few to pass through, and the conflict has become constant and endemic. No one seems to notice that the bodies are starting to pile up and have become in themselves an obstacle to further progress.
I am reminded of the voice of the Scriptures: A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So it is with our lives; we are floating along peacefully, the centers of our own little universes, when suddenly we are thrust against our wills into a narrow, constricting place. There is pain, then light, then cold. We don’t like it, and we open our tiny mouths and complain.
In order to survive the next two hundred years, we are going to need Jesus. It is not that we need to follow Jesus’ teachings more closely, or that we have to convince everybody that they need to believe some kind of ideology centered on Jesus. What we need is Jesus Himself – His divine/human personality with the divinity that He shares with His Father and the humanity which He shares with us through his Mother. Now, what puzzles me is that the pagans and the New Agers seem to be grasping something like this in their insensible way, but official Christendom seems pretty clueless. This is where Rapture fantasies come from, this confusion about Jesus’ agenda.
I wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks if Yeshua Ben Miryam was, say, the Secretary-General of the United Nations with full executive powers. I could sleep peacefully knowing a grownup was in charge. But Jesus left. And to make matters worse, He left on purpose. Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you..
It is expedient, He says. And just when we needed Him so badly. But what did He leave behind? “A Book, a Doctrine”, say the classic Protestants, although they are scarce on the ground these days. “If we have continuity with this Doctrine, we are fulfilling the agenda of Jesus” “A Church”, say the Roman Catholics. “If we are members of this community, and in obedience to its leaders, we are fulfilling the agenda of Jesus.” But He said He would send the Comforter, the Spirit. But there are so many spirits abroad these days….
Now, Owen Barfield didn’t accept baptism in the Church of England until later in life, and he didn’t “come to Jesus”, as did many of us, because he felt ashamed of his whoring, drunkenness, or violent temper. According to something I read on a stray afternoon in a University labrary about a year or so ago, and I will dig up the reference if anybody needs it, Barfield decided to become a Christian because he noticed that certain elements entered the common life of humanity after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. These elements, furthermore, were qualitatively different from the psychical composition of humanity prior to the career of Christ and could not be explained as either a recombination or a development of earlier components. They were the evidence of a new kind of consciousness, a new kind of man. There were to be no more blood-gods, no more Great Mothers.
To be continued…
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.”
Christopher Neiswonger – From his blog:
Scripture, and not philosophy, is the primary source material for the Christian whatever their apologetic bent, and reading it plainly with a reasonable mind toward avoiding contradiction is certainly the Christian way of thinking.
Dame Rebecca West – Black Lamb And Grey Falcon:
“The congregation had realized what people in the West usually do not know: that the state of mind suitable for conducting the practical affairs of daily life is not suitable for discovering the ultimate meaning of life. They were allowing themselves to become drunken with exaltation in order that they should receive more knowledge than they could learn by reason;