Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Owen Barfield on "the one thing needful"

Edited and adapted from several pages of the chapter "Religion" in Saving the Appearances - a study in idolatry by Owen Barfield, published 1957.

It is in the nature of the case that if, at any point in time, a new moral demand is made upon humanity, then moral judgements will grow for a time double and confused.
     I spoke earlier of symptoms of 'iconoclasm', meaning a new willingness to apprehend life symbolically instead of literally; and I now maintain that these have a moral significance, and indeed a paramount moral significance for the present times.
     Yet this does not correspond with the generally accepted scale of Christian moral values, but appears to cut right across it.
     There are plenty of people with a natural taste for dream psychology, symbolical art and literature, sacramentalism in religion and other things whose meaning cannot be grasped without a movement of the imagination. And many of these people are arrogant, self-centred and in other way immoral.
     Conversely, there are practical, humdrum, literal souls before whose courage and goodness we are abashed.
     It is not a happy task to maintain that, from one point of view, and that an all-important one, the former must be accounted morally superior - because they posses the one thing needful which the other lack.
   Because the 'needful' virtue is the one that combats the besetting sin. And the besetting sin today is the sin of literalness or idolatry - of experiencing the phenomena of the world as objects in their own right - independently of human consciousness.
     The relationship between the mind and heart of man is a delicate mystery, and hardness is catching. I believe it will be found that there is a valid connection between literalness and a certain hardness of heart. This is rooted in avoidance of self-knowledge and a determination to adhere to existent idolatry.
     On the positive side a certain humble, tender receptiveness of heart is nourished by a deep and deepening imagination and by the self knowledge which that inevitably involves.

In the sixty years since this passage was written I think its deep truth has become apparent. Literalism in Christianity has persisted and has been largely defeated by the literalism of secular mainstream culture.

Attempts to evolve a more 'symbolic' Christianity have been mostly insincere - typically a stalking horse behind-which liberalism was advanced, with a covert agenda of allowing conformity with secular morality (especially in relation to the sexual revolution).

In essence, we have had sixty years of Secular literalism slugging it out with Christian literalism. An ever more atheistic, and anti-Christian, public sphere has demanded a literalist response to its criticisms - then reacted with horror and disdain to the literalistic perspective that it elicited. Secularism sees Christianity as nothing more than a list of detached knowledge claims, rules, prohibitions and demands on human behaviour - and finds this version of Christianity to be absurd, dull, arbitrary and indeed appalling in its harshness.

And on the other side, those Christians who have resisted the mass trend into apostasy by a strict and stubborn adherence to legalistic definitions (e.g. Biblical inerrancy, an emphasis on obedience to priestly authority, rigid adherence to forms and rituals) have too often fallen victim to that hardness of heart that Barfield sees as a consequence of literalism.

There is indeed a beady-eyed and punitive fanaticism evident in the discourse of too many traditionalist and conservative Christians.

I think Barfield is correct in his overall diagnosis that literalism is a dead-end - and man must move forward to a new and more engaged relationship with the world: neither the immersive acceptance of the past, nor the manipulative nihilism of the present - but a view that feels each of us to be a participant in a web of family-like relationships that embrace not only God, and other people, but all things.

In sum - the way I interpret this passage is in terms of my musings on the deep metaphysical problem of modernity.

So long as we adhere to our nihilistic metaphysical assumptions - even Christianity will usually be neutralized; because Christianity will be distorted, drained, and sucked into an irresistible whirlpool of legalism, hard-heartedness and de facto hatred by the cold, dead-ly, meaning-and-purpose-destroying nature of its literalistic, idolatrous metaphysical underpinnings.

Because if our metaphysics presupposes that we are merely an isolated consciousness inhabiting a dead and indifferent universe the reality of any of which we cannot be sure-of - then doubt will feed on doubt until faith becomes merely a proud, indifferent and arbitrary zeal.

(At least, this is what I fear - that secularism will triumph because it has infected Christian thought so deeply that its presuppositions are undetected, or falsely taken to be logically necessary.)


Nicholas Fulford said...

The emergence of the fundamentals occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century of the United States in response to the higher criticism of the Bible and the perceived threat of evolution to the Christian narrative. From that dark fertile ground the literalist dogma grew as a fear bred strain - increasingly divorced from both reason and the emotional base of love which was the heart of Christianity in practice. This legalism is a strangling vine that crushes the life blood out of what is most distinguishing about Christianity in its best forms. A Christianity that is fearless and radical in its expression of love is all but dead. Perhaps it is time to cull the dead wood from the tree, to remove the strangling vine and allow the radical love which is the sap to rise from the ancient roots.

If an outsider (me) - who once was a Christian - can see this so clearly, why is it so difficult for those who suffer from this malady to see it. Ah, it is the problem of being too close to the problem, to not seeing the storm because in the midst of it, it has become the new normal.

If Christianity did what I am suggesting, those withering on the parched ground of nihilism would drink deeply from that which they secretly desire; an end to nihilism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nicholas "why is it so difficult for those who suffer from this malady to see it."

I think your own case answers the question - because IF you try to abandon legalism WITHOUT reforming the underlying metaphysics (Final Participation, as Barfield calls it) THEN you slide-out of Christianity into apostasy.

This is why I spend so much time harping-on about metaphysics!

Anonymous said...

As someone a few months into the practice of becoming Eastern Orthodox (from a Protestant denomination), I deeply appreciate this profound and eye-opening post! All I can add is, "Yes! Exactly!"

Anonymous said...

Humble obedience is the essence of Christianity. "Literal" is a curious word for it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DL - The 'literal' refers to that which is being obeyed - not the obedience.

It means that the Christian life is conceptualized rather like a set of laboratory instructions.

To the modern mind, the only two ways to understand something are in such a 'literal' way; or esle as purely subjective/ arbitrarily made-up.

Barfield's work (following Goethe and Steiner) is to say there is a stage beyond this: direct apprehension of real knowledge by the imagination.