Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Importance of Owen Barfield

Although I have mentioned Owen Barfield a couple of times, I have not so far in this blog said how important he is in shaping my thinking about religion. I wrote a short essay (here) but that presupposes some acquaintance with contemporary theology. For a longer and more in-depth account, by Caryl Johnston, see here. But there is no substitute for reading his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, for there is where you will find all the reasoning behind his thesis. Here's a much too short overview of that thesis that I wrote in a comment on Sam Norton's blog:

"Briefly, then, Barfield argues -- based on changes in language, art, and ideas -- that human consciousness has evolved in historical time, that the consciousness common in the pre-Axial Age (prior to c. 500 BCE) experienced nature differently from after, and that another major change happened c. 1500 CE. (Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness from the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind makes a similar argument about the earlier change, though Jaynes argues from a materialist perspective). Barfield calls the earlier stage "original participation" which he describes as perceiving "spirit" on "the other side" (from the observer) of the phenomena. Hence, the corresponding religion was shamanistic, or pagan, and it worked. For we moderns, on the other hand, this participation has become unconscious, which made the rise of Cartesian dualism, eventually descending into materialism, possible. The intervening period was one of gradually losing this sense of participation, but the metaphysics of the time remained "participatory", that is, it was a given that the phenomenal was a representation of the spiritual. Mystics are those who have glimpses of a further stage, "final participation", in which the spiritual aspect of nature is rediscovered, but now experienced as "within" us, rather than, as it was for original participation, "without". The key point is that, as consciousness changes, so does nature and our relationship with it. Though now we need two words, "breath" and "spirit", the Greeks just had one ("pneuma"), or we have two words "word" and "thing", biblical Hebrew had one ("daber"). It was not the case (as the modernist filter would have it), that those "primitive" Greeks used "pneuma" in a strictly metaphorical sense for "spirit", but that for the Greeks, they were perceived as the same, occurring both in nature (as breath) and inside us (as mentality). What must be understood, though, is that the flip side of this sundering is the rise of intellect, which requires a stronger distinction between "inside" and "outside", so that we can think about the phenomena, rather than, as in pre_Axial times, be thought by the phenomena. "

In my opinion, religious philosophy/theology that does not take this change in human consciousness into account is going nowhere. It will either replace the wisdom of the ancients and medieval thinkers with modernist idolatry (what I call "materialism plus God"), or replace it with postmodern negativity, or attempt to reconstitute that ancient/medieval wisdom without acknowledging that it no longer works as it used to.