Monday 26 June 2023

Christianity in time, in history

I was reading a chapter by RJ Reilly called "A note on Barfield, romanticism and time"; in the 1976 Owen Barfield Festschrift "The Evolution of Consciousness" - in which Reilly begins by making some striking and insightful points about the fact that Christianity is located in history, posits a sequence of events that are changes, and a goal (i.e. resurrection, everlasting Heavenly life). 

It would seem obvious that the metaphysical roots, its most most fundamental assumptions, would include 'time' - not Time as some kind of separable abstract entity; but time inextricably woven into the basic assumed realities of Christianity.

Yet (as Reilly's chapter goes on to describe) many Christians - especially among philosophers and theologians - have felt it necessary to root Christianity in the Time-less and the unchanging. This decision - sooner or later, somewhere or another - leads to a contradiction; whereby the historical, sequential nature of Christianity meets-up with its supposed eternal but unchanging ground. 

The contradiction may linguistically be reframed - as a paradox, mystery, polarity, or whatever; but I regard these tactics as ultimately hypnotic word-spells, intended to stop-thinking. 

It is extremely rare to come-across a Christian who accepts what I regard as the necessity to base Christianity in ultimate metaphysical explanations that sustain the need for history, sequence, change, a goal...  

Barfield himself was Not one of these Christians. He continued to try and ground time-located/ directed Christianity in "the unchanging" - he merely attempted this in a different place and with a different terminology; but with the same contradiction (as indeed there must always be since a situation of change and no-change cannot be combined). 

This feeling that changelessness, no-time, is The ultimate reality - permeates Eastern Religion in general, and much of Western - such as Platonism and its developments - but it is in practice an "elite" concern. It seems that intellectuals - because of their propensity to speak and write in abstractions; are perhaps disposed to assume that such timeless and general entities are ultimate; and/or to regard the final goal of life as one of unchanging spiritual bliss - including an end to the thinking which is both the distinction and the curse of being an intellectual. 

The contradiction between the eternal and unchanging, and life, is necessarily found in all religions that include no-time as a fundamental assumption; although it varies where and how this contradiction is manifest. In Christianity, the contradiction undercuts the simplicity and clarity of understanding what Jesus did and taught. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the contradiction is instead between theory and practice - because the theory states that life is irredeemably worthless in its entirety.

Yet these are religions - making many discernments of values and practice, and having elaborate rituals, requirements, symbolism etc. There are all kinds of hypnotic word-spells that purport to join-together the time-less and time-bound; but they are psychological manipulations, not genuine understanding. 

Children, tribal peoples, and simple folk often have a very different way of talking about such things - yet typically implicit and unconscious; which is rooted in the assumption that the world is made of Beings - living, conscious, purposive Beings; that change and may transform, but can neither be created nor destroyed: they Just Are, and Always Have Been.

There never has been any good reason why Christianity shouldn't share exactly this 'primitive, Beings-based metaphysics - but explicitly rather than unconsciously and by implication; yet the first known person to understand Christianity in this apparently obvious and common-sensical fashion seems to have been Joseph Smith (the Mormon prophet) from about 1830!  

Neither Barfield, nor Steiner his Master, knew anything about Mormon theology, and did not make this inference on their own - so both remain captive to the contradiction. 

I regard it as a serious weakness of Christianity that the class of intellectuals and theologians have (like those of other religions) violated and over-written the innate and spontaneous assumptions about reality, with which we all came into the world; and replaced them with something that does not make sense.

Presumably, we are all intrinsically capable of recovering our original unconscious child's understanding, of making it conscious to our adult minds, and choosing to accept it as true.  

That sounds simple and easy, but the rarity with which it is achieved suggests that - although it may indeed be simple - it is not easy. 

Metaphysics never is easy to do; which is why our Western world is so deeply and widely corrupted, and still getting worse. 

Review of Simon Blaxland-de Lange's biography - Owen Barfield: Romanticism come of age

Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Owen Barfield: Romanticism come of age. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, UK, 2006/ Second Edition 2021. pp. xvii, 367. 

Blaxland-de Lange's is the only biography of Owen Barfield, and it is very good. 

Indeed, because its greatest strength is that BdL has such a deep understanding of Barfield's ideas, this biography is a way by which someone could approach reading Barfield from scratch. By reading the biography first, the potential explorer can discover which of Barfield's very various books he would be most likely to enjoy and appreciate - and therefore where he might best start reading. 

The biography's great strength, might also be regarded as a stumbling block; which is that BdL is - like Barfield - a serious, indeed professional, Anthroposophist - a follower of Rudolf Steiner. 

This has the great advantage of providing valid and thorough explanations of this aspect of Barfield, which aspect is usually so badly covered by most other writers about Barfield - few of whom have made the (considerable!) effort necessary to get to grips with Steiner's vast oeuvre

On the other hand; the book is written on the basis of Anthroposophical assumptions, and includes reference to Steiner concepts; that will strike the na├»ve reader as bizarre, as well as startling. Yet, there is also a good deal of Steiner, and indeed the core of his work; that is potentially of primary importance to everyone; so to attain understanding is well worth a bit of effort.   

The organization of the book is somewhat eccentric. It begins conventionally enough, with a "biographical sketch" which gives an overview of Barfield's life, and some of the major incidents - ending with some snapshots of his attitudes and concerns at the end of his ninety-nine year life. 

After this, the book is presented in a thematic way, with different chapters covering different aspects of Barfield's life and ideas - and these chapters are not in any overall chronological arrangement, but instead each chapter includes whatever is relevant to its particular concern. 

This means that - after the first overview - the book chapters can be read, without loss, in almost any order; and this has been my practice over the decade-plus since I bought the first edition. 

Second edition differences are minimal. Indeed, I could only myself detect the addition of an Appendix making available for the first time Psychography; which was an aborted draft attempt, from the late 1940s, at a spiritual autobiography by Barfield - which runs at 12 pages, and stops in Barfield's late teens. 

This is well worth reading, as a further insight into some fundamental aspects of Barfield - including his extreme shyness and reserve in talking on the topic of himself. 

For instance, he writes about the psychological effects of his problem with stammering; but never actually says what that problem was! If the reader did not already know about this problem from elsewhere, then the passage would be highly mystifying - and the problem sounds more sinister, and shameful, than it actually was.  

In sum: Romanticism Come of Age is probably the only indispensable book about Owen Barfield - anyone who is interested by Barfield will want a copy, and will consult it frequently.