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
“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,
“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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