If you want optimism, I don't have any for our society's near future. But hope I have, and here's a repost of an essay that explains my reason for it:
Barfield and Nietzsche start from the same place—a recognition that the transcendent values of the West have dried up as a living source of meaning in the culture, that is to say as a source of “given’ meaning in the cultural forms and institutions that we inherit from the past and into which we are socialized as children. And both agree as to the remedy—that human beings must find a way to reconstitute meaning in the outer world from resources found within their own individuated subjectivity.
The difference lies in that for Nietzsche this reconstituting project was to be achieved through the will to Power; for Barfield through the awakening of the Logos. (By Logos Barfield means that which is referred to in the Prologue of John's Gospel, not the logical functions of the mind, although an argument can be made that the latter relies on the former, but that's another post.) The point is that either N’s choice must be made or Barfield’s--or the culture shrivels into something shaped by the bread and circus values of the Last Man.
I think it’s important to point out that neither Nietzsche nor Barfield are the first to talk about the interiorization of meaning. It was a movement in the history of Western thought that began with Descartes and then with Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. (See my post "Metaxis" for more on this)
Barfield’s importance for what I want to present lies, first, in his explanation of why the objective world has become stripped of so much of the meaning that people of an earlier age took for granted. And, second, in his proposal, that hearkens back to the thought of the Romantics, perhaps Coleridge, Schelling, and Novalis more than the others, that transcendent meaning can no longer be found out there because its source has migrated from out in the world into the depths of the human soul. Indeed the whole meaning of the Incarnation of the Logos two thousand years ago was to enable this transition. For after Christ an entirely new possibility for freedom became available for human beings, and the history of the world since then is the story of conditions gradually changing in such a way as to allow for the emergence of this freedom in all of its fullness.
The idea of Christian freedom has been a theme in Christian thought since it was first articulated in the Epistles of St. Paul, but during the Romantic period, Western thought awakened to it as a possibility in a profoundly new way that has given shape to the modern human sense of individuality and selfhood, to the importance of human creativity, and for the shaping power of the human imagination that simply was impossible for people in earlier era.
So the irony lies in that as the culture has come more and more to understand meaning as subjectively constituted, the Christian meaning world has significantly diminished in its influence and in its power to shape the public culture. The objective meaning of the traditional language and ritual of the Church has become more stripped of its obvious objective meanings and as such has become easy not to take seriously. Since the Reformation the Church’s control over even its own meanings has progressively eroded to a degree where now Christianity means pretty much anything anyone wants it to mean and where moral and doctrinal orthodoxy is something only a relatively small group of traditionalists care about.
There is, therefore, no real mystery about why Christianity and the religious sensibility in general has had such a diminished influence in shaping public culture since the mid nineteenth century. But this does not mean that the traditional forms are meaningless. It makes a huge difference if one believes that the forms have lost meaning because they never had any to begin with or if one believes that the loss of “given” meaning was an essential stage in a longer term process by which human beings have to become liberated from external forms if they are to come into possession of the freedom and selfhood for which they were created.
If the forms never had meaning to begin with, then the past is irrelevant and the future is a blank slate upon which the uebermenschen can write whatever script pleases them. If the latter, then the script for the future at least in part lies in finding ways to reconstitute the forms from the past so that they might live again, pulsing again with meaning, not as something given from without by the gods, but constituted by a self-transcending, world-constituting human Self, the Self created in the image of the I Am Who Am, whose purpose and meaning derives from an awakened sense of the Logos which lives in the interior depths of the human soul.
Because this is the difference between the Nietzschean and the Christian. For the first, the world is radically open-ended and any human future is a possibility. The Christian would also acknowledge that because humans are no longer fated by the gods and determined by outside forces in the way they were, that a wide range of futures is a possibility, but however it is attained the future has a goal, a telos, an Omega point. And the striving toward that endpoint is what gives meaning and significance to what we do now.
And the achievement of this telos will require unprecedented effort and imagination if it is to be achieved, but not any kind of effort or any kind of imagination. Rather the challenge lies in awakening an imagination-inspired effort that is informed by the Logos. What’s required is a way of reconstituting meaning from within that also resonates deeply with the truth Christians recognize as a presence in the Gospels and the traditions of the Church. This is not the truth of the scholars who have deconstructed, torn up, demythologized, and eviscerated the scriptures and traditions of the church in a misguided search for objectivity. Among the most absurd of these projects has been the modern, mostly Protestant, project of wanting to determine which were the words in the Gospels that Jesus really spoke. It misses almost completely the point. The real goal of modernity has not been the enshrinement of objective truth, but of the discovery of the profound subjectivity of truth. Kierkegaard, Yes. Comte, No.
But subjective doesn't mean arbitrary. It requires that in the same way that humans developed criteria about understanding what was true or false in the the outer world of nature through experimental method, a similar method must be developed for understanding what is true or false in the interior world of the Soul. What it will come down to is what works, what is fruitful, what moves the individual toward true freedom and the culture forward toward an embodiment of peace and justice. William James, Yes. Syllabus Errorum, No. There are resources from the tradition from which we can make a beginning here. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but those resources have to be adapted to these remarkably open-ended cultural conditions.
So here is the essential thing: If there is no Logos and no Grace, the Nietzscheans are right, and it’s either the uebermensch or the Last Man, masters and slaves. I know there are other possibilities, but they are not serious because if Grace is an illusion, then Power is the only thing that matters. That's hard for some to accept, but it's obvous to anyone who thinks it through. But if the Logos is potentially awakenable in the depths of every human being’s soul, then a whole range of possibilities lie before us. For this graced awakening is what we mean by “faith,” and faith is the main ingredient that distinguishes the subjectivity of the Christian from the subjectivity of the Nietzschean. And this is an experience that has been repeated continuously through the centuries and will always continue to happen regardless what happens in the larger culture or the Church.
So the shift toward the interiority of meaning is not something new after Kant. Indeed the Pietism in which he was nourished as a child and which he never relinquished as an adult was the 18th-century German manifestation of this interiority that has always been central to genuine Christian faith. It’s just that now the fundamental experience of faith has become essential in a different way for a culture that has otherwise lost its way. If the challenge for the first Israelites was to live according to the law, which meant an effort of will to resist regression into the idolatry that surrounded them, the challenge for us now is to find the will and the imagination to stoke the slumbering flame that burns within our hearts. For a truth lives there as real and “objective” as any that lived in an earlier age on tablets of stone. But it’s for most of us a weakly recognized truth which tends to get lost amid a myriad other subjective impulses. Its presence is like a still small voice, which can only be heard if one listens for it, and that requires the stilling of other voices that roar within the soul. And so like the Israelites of old, a discipline is required to resist the natural flow of the world to create a space for grace to work.
Before modernity, Christianity had to fight for its interior truth in a world in which the exterior world of meanings given by a culture still steeped in original participation was overwhelming and in which its clamor easily drowned out the still, small voice now calling from within. Those who heard this interior calling went out into the desert or sequestered themselves in monasteries where the noise outside could be kept at bay. After Constantine, Christianity was recognized and incorporated into what remained of the cultural forms of Imperial Rome, and life continued much as it had before despite the Christian trappings. But the world since the mid nineteenth century has changed radically, and as recognized in Eliot’s zeitgeist-defining poem of the 1920s, it is no longer necessary for us to go out into the Wasteland; the Wasteland has come to us.
The culture until the mid 19th century was able to maintain some integrity, some coherence because the old forms given by a human consciousness that were shaped by an outside-in Christianity still provided a context of meaning. But Nietzsche following Schopenhauer and Feuerbach realized that meaning is no longer out there—it’s no longer given to us by a God who is out there. It’s time for us to reclaim as something essential to human dignity what was projected outward onto God. There is no god out there; it’s we who are God, and we must accept the active, world-creating responsibility that goes with it. They were half right.
The story of modernity is essentially the story of the shift from outside-in to inside-out, of individuals asserting their interiority over against the perceived exterior authority. There would be no felt need to do this if the exterior authority had not rigidified into a “system” that no longer carried life, the way, for instance, the oral traditions of tribal cultures carried life. The modern period has been dominated by one liberation program or another, and liberation has become an end in itself, and politics has become a simple-minded program for progressive-minded of searching for anyone or anything in need of liberation. Politics in the modern period has been defined as the need of the oppressed individual or group to assert itself against the individuation-crushing system—whether it be governmental, corporate or religious.
This is a Romantic project. Because since the late 18th century Western culture has split into two main factions. One, the rationalist “technocrats” who see the world as a machine and are fascinated primarily with the engineering and system-building challenges the world poses, including social engineering projects. The other, the alienated “Romantics” who instinctively find any given cultural forms or meanings oppressive and think of their purpose as only to stifle individual expression. The real culture war that will shape the next century is not between fundamentalists and evolutionists, but between Romantics and Technocrats. It’s what’s driving, for instance, the protests against the WTO.
The kind of Christian that has most to contribute will ally himself naturally with the Romantics, but not in the interests of promoting subjectivist anarchy, but in affirming, as they do, the dignity and sacredness of the individual and of the potency of human imagination and freedom. But he or she will also form alliances with the those who want to give shape and form to our lives together in culture. If there is any meaning at all to be found in our public institutions, it is something we give them from within our own subjectivity. Meaning isn’t there now for most people in the Romantic faction, and they feel estranged from the system.
The political implications of this viewpoint are present throughout the blog entries I've been posting since 2003. I've described here the basis for both saying No and Yes. There isn't much to say Yes to at this point, but that could change. In the meanwhile we must recognized that the old forms, withered and brittle though they have become, have not yet collapsed. There is much that is worthy in them, no matter how much they have been coopted and distorted by the forces of anti-freedom. But if they haven’t collapsed, they stand as something rather rickety and vulnerable to collapse soon. It needn’t happen, and it won’t if some way can be found to reconstitute the forms from within. This does not mean that the forms themselves must be preserved at all costs, but rather that what remains of the forms be approached with reverence because they once held something precious. And they must be approached with the attitude that in our contemplation of them, something in us will awaken that correlates with what first gave them shape. And once that happens, the life in us so awakened will lead to new growth, and the Wasteland will bloom again.