Owen Barfield: Mystic —Part Three

sower and the seed

sower and the seed

This is the third and final installation of three posts on the Owen Barfield’s book, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. If you haven’t read the previous two, I recommend giving them the once over to provide some context for this one. In this post, I’ll move directly into Barfield’s take on Jesus’ life, and his role in moving humanity toward “final participation”.  I’m going to riff of a couple of quotes to begin with because they blew me away.

“There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word”.

Of course, this is exactly what science will never do because, by definition, it is an epistemological strategy for removing all variables, except those available to the senses and by extension its instruments of analysis. That puts the kibosh to G_d, or any non-material Source.  The problem is that the scientific method itself is grounded a materialistic bias, and if matter isn’t actually the foundational substrate of the universe as we know it, and if pretty much our entire social system is built upon the assumption of materialism, then we live and move and have our being in an idolatrous reality—a non-participatory reality, or essentially, The Matrix. Which is, of course, Barfield’s understanding. Barfield is Christian, and so he naturally relates his non-materialistic worldview with the Jesus’ story. But you could substitute the theology of pretty much any religious system, which in one way or another must assume that matter represents, or participates in, or is a manifestation of a self-existent creative principle.

Here’s another quote which caused me to go back and re-read a few times:

“Not to realize to the uttermost the otherness of God from ourselves is to deny the Father/Mother. But equally, not to strive to realize the sameness—to renege from the Supreme Identity—is to deny the Holy Spirit. This , any deeply religious man may feel, whatever terminology he may have learnt to employ. To this a true Christian, must add: In no way to relate the former with the past, and the latter with the future of the world, is to seek to deprive history, and perhaps time itself, of all religious significance.”

What he’s getting at here is pretty much in line with a mystical understanding of Christianity, although

Artist: Radha Flora

Artist: Radha Flora

“mystic” is a word that never shows up in this book. Barfield retains the “otherness” of G_d, by invoking the Father. But what is critical here is to realize that the Father/Mother is not other in the way, say, an ant is other than me. This otherness is rooted in a comparison between two different phenomena. But G_d is not an object, except in the mind of one in whom there is no vestige of original participation. G_d’s otherness is a depth dimension, the most intimate interior of Reality, inaccessible to human egos, but not to the soul, whose only desire is to ground the sensate life in the heart of the Father/Mother. The other pole is to embrace our Supreme Identity with G_d, conferred by participating in the activity of the Holy Spirit. It’s the next line that is the kicker for me.

“To this a true Christian, must add: In no way to relate the former with the past, and the latter with the future of the world, is to seek to deprive history, and perhaps time itself, of all religious significance.” Whoa nelly. What is the religious significance of time and history? For Barfield, it is that evolution is moving us inexorably toward final participation, whereby humans assume a “directionally creator” relationship to the world and its future. In other words, it is to internalize our Supreme Identity (without losing sight of the depth dimension of the Originating Mystery that is unknowable), and out of this internalization, we assume the role of creators. The Creator’s original imagination to bring forth a world from the Word, becomes our mission. This is, for Barfield, the maturation of, and the fulfilment of the evolutionary process in humans. We bring forth that future through sacred imagination, an imagination that must be grounded in a sacred, rather than a profane narrative, if the future is to be in alignment with Creator’s original intention. Final participation, in other words, is very similar to conscious evolution. But too much “conscious evolution” rhetoric these days is grounded in grandiose, heroic gestures, when what is called for is the self-emptying orientation of Jesus himself. (More on this in a future post).

Barfield’s final chapter on the Kingdom of God is masterful. He convincingly takes the ending that Jesus uses for many of his parables—”for those that have ears to hear and eyes to see”—as an allusion to both Psalm 135 and Isaiah 44, which are clearly focused on idols and idolaters. The idols and those who make them have ears that cannot hear and eyes that cannot see. It is the idolatry of emptiness and nothingness. And emptiness is the condition of humanity in this time of history when we no longer enjoy original participation, but have yet to realize final participation. This is the condition “which is brought about when the elimination of participation has deprived the outer kingdom—the outer world of images, whether natural or artificial—of all spiritual substance, while the new kingdom within has not yet begun to be realized.”

When Jesus ends his parables with “Who has ears to hear, let him hear!” it is always associated with the teaching of the Kingdom within, “of the movement from within outward”. In other words, these are the ones who have internalized the Word, and particularly, says Barfield, those who have internalized the Word made flesh in Jesus. So that Paul can write, “it is no longer I, but Christ in me”.  The Creative Principle or Logos, is now alive inside as an animating power within those who “get it”. The parable of the sower is precisely about the seed of the Word being planted in the soil of the interiority of the human.  This Word is not preaching the gospel. It’s not even, in the first place, about proclaiming Jesus as the Word. It’s about humans becoming fertile soil for the realization that the Creative Principle (the Word) is now within us, and it is our evolutionary responsibility and privilege, to bring forth a future that is coherent with the Love and Wisdom of the Originating Mystery.

Barfield says that this movement toward final participation will not be easy, but on the other hand,

Artist - Alex Grey

Artist – Alex Grey

“If the Christ infuses my whole person, mind as well as heart, the cosmos of wisdom, with all its forgotten truths, will dwell in me whether I like it or not; for Christ is the cosmic wisdom on its way from original to final participation”.

And what of the scientific enterprise? Ultimately it will be remembered as that epistemological tool, which, like the Jews before it, “scoured the appearances clean of the last traces of spirit, freeing us from original participation and for final participation. And if what is produced thereby was as I have suggested, a world of idols, yet, as Augustine of old could contemplate the greatest of evils and exclaim Felix peccatum! ( O Happy Sin ), so we looking steadily on that world, and accepting the burden of existential responsibility which final participation lays on us, may yet be moved to add, Felix eidolon, O Happy Idol. 


















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  1. Toni Pieroni says

    Hi Bruce,
    when he writes “If the Christ infuses my whole person . . .” – do you think he did? I think of Teilhard as I read this, who wrote of his own mystical experiences and sensibilities. Does Barfield get personal in this book? Was there any connection between Barfield and Teilhard? Not sure it matters, just curious. I was also struck by the “burden of existential responsibility” phrase – it seems to me it is both a burden and joy, which he expresses – in that you can’t “go back”, i.e., you can no longer deny our true identity as “particiipators”. But, for me, what little bit I glean of this, it also gives my life, and human life itself, purpose and meaning. I will be curious what you will write about later re: the rhetoric of conscious evolution. It would be a relief to be released of the “burden” of the grandiose and heroic, as you say. My own take on this, is that in every moment we are “participating” – in every thought, word and deed – and becoming conscious and intentional, awake, is the opportunity and practice at this time in history. Anyway, for what it’s worth . . . Since I haven’t read him, I’m not sure if I’m anywhere near the essence of what he’s saying.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Toni, I don’t know if Barfield read Teilhard. It’s likely he didn’t know about Teilhard as the Jesuits wouldn’t release his books. But Teilhard was lecturing in Paris from time to time, mostly related to his scientific discoveries. Barfield doesn’t talk much about his own experience in the book, except of course the whole book is grounded in his own experience. Barfield was more influenced by Rudolph Steiner, speaking glowingly of him. I agree that conscious evolution is both a privilege and a responsibility. My take on this is that evolution is hard-wired into the world and therefore into us. The conscious part of evolution (us) has the responsibility to get out of the way. The spiritual practice is as much via negativa or kenotic, as it is positiva (doing stuff to “make it happen”). There is a conscious passivity to cultivate. Less about “making it happen” than allowing it to happen through us. Again, not easy. We are so into security, status, sustenance that we don’t even know the ways these have us in a trance. And our rational minds justify our fear-based life choices. “Making it happen” is a paradigm I’m familiar with. It’s much more unnerving to allow it to unfold in, through, and as me. The new thing that wants to happen is always iconoclastic, waking us up to our personal and collective idols, and smashing them. Thanks Toni

  2. says

    Thank you, Bruce, for bringing Owen Barfield to our attention in this invigorating series discussing his book. Back when I was still in the evangelical world, I latched onto Teilhard’s Divine Milieu as a way to view the parousia. Like Toni, I see a resonance with Teilhard in Barfield’s concepts of original and final participation and Christ as cosmic wisdom. What I am not clear on, if you can elaborate, is the idea stated in your last paragraph about scientific enterprise being an epistemological tool bringing us to final participation. Prior to that, it seemed that your discussion indicated that Barfield saw the problem with modern scientific thought as attempting to separate us from creation and mystery causing us to live without any realization of our participation in that mystery. How is it that the “idol” which separates us from the cosmic process becomes the tool which will brings about our participation? Is it that we are just “misusing” the tool, and will eventually learn to properly use it?

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Charles,

      Here’s my take on it. Just as Augustine realized that without sin he would have never found his need for redemption “O happy sin”, so Barfield figures that science will (and has) led us to a dead end world of idols (objects that participate in no greater reality, and this includes humans), so we realize our need of redemption from this worldview (scientific materialism). It is a negative that leads to a positive reorientation. Life becomes so empty and purposeless, that it ignites the search for higher meaning that what this worldview can offer. He wonders if we’ll look back on this era and realize that this was the ultimate purpose of this worldview. A necessary foray into the dark forest of meaninglessness that leads us to search once again for the light. Make sense?

  3. Karen Holderbein says

    I was a fundamental Christian for 30 years. During that time I became so bored with the subject of ‘idolatry’ as it was being taught that I’ve not thought about in all the years since I moved on from the mythic version of Christianity. Your blog opened up an awesome way for me to reframe all of that. When I open my email, no matter how many posts are there waiting for me to read, yours is the one I am most delighted to open and savor. Thank you and Happy 2014 to you.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Karen, You’re one of maybe three who seems to have gotten something from dear old Barfield, :-) and I’m grateful that you picked up something from his take on idols. I’m glad that what I’m writing is meaningful for you.

  4. Carol A. says

    This doesn’t necessarily fit with this particular post, but when I listened to this meditation by Ken Wilbur (http://integrallife.com/loft-series/having-no-head-pointing-out-exercise), I immediately thought of Barfield. At first, I thought it was the same as Barfield’s thought, but on reflection, I think the meditation gives the impression that all phenomena come directly from our head, whereas Barfield seems to me to stress our complicated sense organisms interacting with something out there that is unknown and unknowable except for what it impresses on our minds. I.e., it’s not all in our heads, but also out there, and we are coming to know it, more and more.

    That being said, I’ve decided to really study Barfield – and it may be quite obvious that I need to. If I ever get something down that makes sense to me, will I still be able to respond to this post to share it with you?

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Carol, I haven’t listened to the meditation, but I do know that Barfield stood somewhere between the Naive Realists (we experience everything outside of ourselves exactly as it is and don’t need to question that it has independent reality) and Critical Idealists (by the time objects get filtered through our various sensing apparati, we can’t know the “thing-in-itself” but only our idea of what it is— we don’t see the world as it is, but rather as we are). Rather, I can know the world precisely because I’m constituted by the same stuff as the stuff I’ve observing. It is therefore knowable, distinct, yet intimately connected with me. It is only through the interaction that the world can be known. Ken doesn’t subscribe to the notion that it’s all in our head. Rather the right hand quadrants have their independent reality but can only be known by perspective taking (four quadrants).

      • Carol A. says

        Thanks, Bruce. I have only the slightest overview of an understanding of Wilbur’s work, but I did figure that my perception of his post was probably incorrect. Thanks for clarification – and education. You’ve given me some good distinctions for understanding where different folks are coming from. It can be pretty puzzling, so I generally just muddle through trying to make sense of things based on my own experiences and intuition, which I am only late in life beginning to trust.

  5. Carol A. says

    When I wrote my last comment, I hadn’t read any of the other comments, but I do want to thank your other readers for questions that I also had about whether or not Barfield and Tiehard de Chardin knew each other. It seems possible, since they shared the world stage around the same time. Then again, it could be that it’s evolution itself that’s bringing this consciousness about.

    And I loved your answer to Toni about our needing to get out of the way. I will ditto that, for sure. It’s not just “O.K., have it your way,” and off we go. We have to involve ourselves in getting out of the way. It’s not a vacation of our responsibility, but as you say, “There is a conscious passivity to cultivate. Less about “making it happen” than allowing it to happen through us.” And what’s allowed to happen is often counter-intuitive or just plain silly to our logical mindset. To me, it seems to be a matter of trust that love will win out – and it does, and it will.

    I’m kind of wondering, in this Christmas season, if evolution isn’t the same thing as Emmanuel.

  6. Toni Pieroni says

    Well, Bruce, I gotta say, the last line you said to me knocked me out: “The new thing that wants to happen is always iconoclastic, waking us up to our personal and collective idols, and smashing them.” Whoa! Not for the faint of heart! Somewhere in my journal musings, either before or after, reading this, I don’t know – I wrote: In all my strivings for the perfect life, it has not brought me to love. On New Year’s Eve with some friends, we pondered the question of “traditions” – holiday traditions, in particular. What is more idolatrous? 2 of our members very cynical about any traditions, and others of us more sentimental. But, what occurred to me later is the role of art, tradition, ritual – those things we turn into idols, can also be what breaks our hearts open. “O Holy NIght’ never fails to make my heart burst – is that idolatry, sentimentality or something that has sustained over the years to open me and others to the Mystery? So, the “new thing” may look the same – and it is as David Whyte says: ‘to love all the things it has taken me so long to love”. Again, I think this is the challenge for us Christians – how do we bring the idols of tradition alive – letting ourselves be broken open in new ways. This is probably why so many have left the church.

    • Bruce Sanguin says

      Thanks Toni, for sharing so deeply. I don’t think that tradition is itself necessarily an idol. Traditionalism is though. In evolution, the universe carries forward everything that served as a foundation for what needs to emerge. Who can say whether O Holy Night is an idol? My sense is that your connection with the sacred is established through regular practice. It’s when people show up once a year and O HOly Night just kind of rounds out the seasonal mood that it becomes, potentially, an idol. It’s a Christmas bauble. I think we bring the traditions to life by the quality of our consciousness. Of course, there comes a time when some traditions are just dead weight. No juice. Many of the Christmas carols are that for at this point in my own journey. Just can’t connect.

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