I believe that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is, that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed form all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element in its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two. (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, p. 167)
The larger narrative makes a difference. It matters to know where we came from and where we're going. It makes a difference whether we think that history is a random, absurd process or whether it has meaning and direction. It makes a difference if we believe that our life on the earth is the life of an exile who longs like E.T. for a home elsewhere. Or whether we think of the earth as our home that we must work hard to liberate from its futility and bondage.
So for me the starting place for the development of postmodern Christian narrative is the work of Owen Barfield. Barfield is not well known, but is a very important thinker whom I hope will someday be more broadly recognized and understood. I first learned about him when I came across R.J. Reilly's Romantic Religion: A study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams and Tolkien in the early 70s. Barfield was a close friend over many years of C.S. Lewis, but Barfield was by far a more rigorous thinker. His most important book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Another very interesting book that is really at the root of his thinking about cultural evolution is History in English Words. I met him and had a chance to talk with him on a few occasions in 1974 when, at the invitation of the death-of-god theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer, he was a visiting lecturer at SUNY Stonybrook.
He's working in the same grove as Heidegger in that he accepts that we are living in a post-Nietzschean world in which collective culture-wide transcendent meanings have been shattered, and he's barking up the same tree as Heidegger, when it comes to his way of understanding of human beings and their embeddedness in the life world around them. But he's on the other side of the tree. He's a Christian, and I think this enables him to go much further than Heidegger in seeing meanings in history that a purely phenomenological approach won't support.
I encourage the reader here if he finds my account below compelling to read Barfield for himself and decide for himself whether he makes sense. For me he makes enormous sense, and my reading him was one of the intellectual turning points that, alas, have kind of isolated me because so few others have made that turn. I have always assumed that a basic element in the Christian understanding the world is that history has meaning, but nobody seemed to talk about it in a way that made any sense. Barfield's ideas did make sense and provided for me a frame upon which I could develop my own inchoate intuitions about what that meaning might be.
I understand and respect the Kierkegaardian rejection of Hegelianism, but I don't think that he and other existentialists have the last word on the subject. That history is meaningful seems so central to the logic of Christianity that it should not just be tossed to the side because there's no way to verify our ideas about it. We're not working in the world of 'logos' here, but in the world of 'mythos'. I think of logos as having a kind of structural role in rendering for us a world that has a kind of coherency and intelligibility. But I see mythos, criminally neglected in the modern age, as the human capacity to work imaginatively within the Logos frame to shape a story that resonates in the life of imagination and feeling.
It's clear to me, anyway, that our life here on earth has a purpose, and that the future of the earth is central to that purpose. And yet it's clear that for most Christians this history, or any sense of an evolving historical drama, has little to do with their understanding of who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. I think there is a mythopoetic narrative possibility here that awaits its moment to emerge into a legitimate space that has not yet been prepared for it.
In the meanwhile, the default Christian idea about history seems to depend strongly on the "exile" model--history is jail time: we do our time on the earth following the rules as best we can so that we can get out of jail on good behavior and go to our heavenly home with God. This idea, in my opinion, has more to do with Buddhism and Hinduism than it has to do with Christianity. In such a model the earth is a prison to be escaped. I think of it rather as our ailing, semi-conscious mother whom we must nurse back to health.
Barfield gives us a way to think about the Christian meaning of history, and for me it is very compelling. He understood the problem of modern cultural decadence in much the say way as Nietzsche did, but he frames it as a necessary, if risk-fraught, middle phase in the unfolding of the larger historical drama. This drama extends from what he calls Original Participation to Final Participation, from the metaphorical Garden of the beginning times to the metaphorical New Jerusalem of the far-distant end times. From something passively given to something actively made.
The modern period is the transition era in which human beings move from a mode of passive evolution to a mode of free, active choice in shaping the destiny of the earth. This is a Christian vision that is not about just saving our individual souls, but about saving and transforming the earth and all that lives on it. And that's why politics matter, for the political sphere is the arena in which we choose the path we are to take, and it is so, so important that the choice not be left to powermad and the avaricious, which has been the default mode, for the most part, to date.
Barfield, like Nietzsche, agrees that the modern era has been a time in which the last vestiges of the sense of transcendent meaning as something given in the world have disappeared—transcendence is no longer something a truly modern consciousness experiences as coming from out there. And he agrees that the solution must be to awaken resources in the human soul and the soul of the world, which are the same thing, in order that meaning in the world be reconstituted. The essential difference lies in that for Nietzsche this reconstituting project derives from the Superman and his will to power, whereas for Barfield it derives from the Logos who dwells in the depths of soul. For Barfield it is possible, indeed essential, that meaning be constituted by a different kind of ‘overcoming’ man, not the Superman, but the Logos bearer.
For the whole thrust of Barfield’s thought is to show how human consciousness has evolved in such a way that “meaning” has shifted from something given in the world outside to something that now lies in potentia, slumbering in the depths of every human soul, and which it is now the human task to awaken. The Logos, although it was known to the Greeks and Jews of antiquity, was not primarily known by them through their interior experience. Jesus’ announcement that “the Kingdom of God is within” was a critical turning point in the history of meaning. An epochal shift occurred then which has not yet been fully accomplished, a shift that really didn’t manifest itself broadly in western culture until the time of the renaissance and the dawn of the Modern period.
Both the Greeks and Jews played a critical historical role in helping the kind of soul that could become such a Logos bearer. Although both knew the Logos and both played an essential role in developing the kind of human soul that could hold the Logos within. This has been the essential contribution of the West to the world—the space-and-eye oriented, Promethean, restless, overcoming, speculative, exploratory heritage that comes from the Greeks and the ear-and-time-oriented sense of the profundity and mystery of the human will, of human identity, and of the meaning of history from the Jews.
And what we have seen in the last five hundred years is the transition of our experience of transcendence from a Greek, outer-focused, spatial imagination of transcendence to a Jewish inward-focused, temporal, future-oriented imagination. Transcendence in the modern period has become more about time (before and after) than about space (up and down), more about listening than about seeing.
For the former transcendence is an out- or up-there that shapes our life down here, for the latter it’s something down-here, within history, experienced as a hope for the fulfillment of a promise. For the Greek what is good is higher and comes from above, and what’s bad is lower coming from below. For the Jew, the good is progressive, aiming toward something better that lies in the future, and what’s bad is nostalgia, a falling back to previous stages of development. The longing to regress is symbolized by Lot’s wife in Genesis, the Jews in Exodus who longed to return to Egypt’s fleshpots, and Ahab’s regression to Baal worship in Kings. In the Old Testament narrative, these are all instances of disobedience on one level, but at a deeper level they are a breaking of faith, a failure to trust in the promises made to them by their God.
Barfield argues that it was the historical mission of the Greeks and the Jews to begin a process of thinking and willing that enabled human beings to extricate themselves from what had been before an ‘immersion in Being’. Barfield called this immersion ‘original participation,’ a condition of soul that all premoderns experienced to some extent, totemic or animistic peoples being the extreme case. Original participation lingered in the West, especially in rural areas, well into the nineteenth century and can still be found in rural cultures where premodern consciousness and traditions haven’t been completely snuffed out. But it began slowly to dry up in Israel after Moses and in Greece in the 5th century B.C., accelerated at the time of the Renaissance, and culminated in the Enlightenment rationality and materialism of the 18th and 19th century.
For Barfield these changes in human consciousness have not been religiously regressive despite the secularism that has accompanied them. He recognizes that for the educated urban dweller in the West, religious language and ritual have lost almost all of their sacred power as something given to us from a meaning world out there. But that does not mean that what comes to us as given from the tradition is therefore untrue or unbelievable as the Nietzscheans have come to think. The outer world as we think of it as just a complex pattern of atoms, has lost its ability to confer robust meaning. And that is as it should be, because so long as the world outside was perceived to be the source of all meaning and human beings were seen as passive receptors of that meaning, humans were living in a world in which their freedom could not come into full development.
As humans emerged gradually out of original participation, their capacity for freedom grew. In Barfield’s view, the modern period marks a profoundly significant turning point in human history, because the human being has come into possession of his freedom in a way unprecedented in the history of the world. Everything depends on how he uses it in shaping what is to a remarkable extent an open-ended future. And everything depends on whether humans envision that future as shaped by the values of the Last Man or if he is able to develop a new possibility for a nobler kind of human being. There are three choices (with different variations) before us: the Last Man, the Superman, or the Logos bearer. The fundamental purpose of this blog is to show how the last is not only a plausible option, but a necessary one.
The Jews were the "Chosen" people because they were "given" the Law on Mt. Sinai. The law is no longer out there on slabs of stone. For the last 2000 years it has been working its way into the depths of our souls. It is the Logos that both resides within and which is the secret song which the entire cosmos sings. It is therefore something that is out there, but our way to it is by first awakening to it within. And as that fire burns in one heart it has the power to enkindle it in another, and eventually this kindling will return to the earth, which has all but been drained of its life, back to the luminous, radiant, sacred being that she is.
The re-sacralizing the world is not something that will be given to us. It is a work that we must choose to undertake. We are no longer passively evolving. The entire future of the earth and its evolution is now in human hands and its future will be a future that humans choose for it. Everything therefore depends on how we imagine the possibilities.
And right now the Christian imagination of the future is not very robust because it is still hamstrung by its premodern self-understanding. The exile model--the heaven as final destination model--still plays too powerful a role in the Christian imagination of history. The idea that the goal and purpose of human existence is to get off the planet and into some spiritual pleroma can no longer be embraced; too much is at stake, and it makes too easy a blindness to our responsibility for future generations.
There is indeed a spiritual pleroma, and it is the source of all life and all goodness, but our job is not to get off the planet and into it, but to be the infusion point through which the spiritual pleroma can be injected into the earth thus effecting its transformation. We are the infusion points through which the Logos lives into our death and thus renews the face of the earth.
This is a big, big task, and we are only at the beginning of our understanding how to do it, because we are only at the beginning of understanding how radically things have changed in the last five hundred years. We are only beginning to fathom the massive unprecedented responsibility that human beings have now assumed for the future of the earth.
I believe this wandering in the wilderness, this cultural winter through which we are now living, is a transitional experience, and that sooner or later we will either move back into Egypt or forward into Canaan (figuratively speaking--moving forward is always a movement toward Canaan). Nazism was Germany's neo-pagan regression toward Egypt, and that tendency is an ever present temptation for all decadent western cultures. When you don't see a clear way forward, there is always the inclination toward calcification (dogmatism/fundamentalism) or regression (primitivism/instinctualism).
I've written extensively about my fears that the attitudes that lie behind the political popularity of the Bush administration are are rooted in both these tendencies. The religious right toward calcification; the neocons toward the celebration of the primitive power impulse that longs for empire. And while we seem to be entering a phase in which the country is finally realizing the right's bankruptcy, we are still very vulnerable to other experiments in calcification and regression.
This will remain true so long as some figurative Canaan, some way forward, remains something we cannot plausibly frame in our imaginations of the future. If you don't believe history has a meaning and that you have a responsibility in shaping it, then you collude with the bad guy's propaganda narrative, which is always about justifying its greed and compulsion to dominate.