Saturday 5 August 2017

The Method of Jesus - So absolutely right; but why so indirect?

Giving somebody the Gospels to read can provide a confusing experience. Assuming that Jesus was - through his life and ministry, trying to tell us something new and important, he went about it in a strange way. Why?

Why are the stories of Jesus's life mostly a matter of him telling parables, performing wonders and making enigmatic comments? What did he mean by this?

Owen Barfield has an astonishing chapter called The Mystery of the Kingdom in Saving the Appearances (1957) which suggests the answer. He analyses the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 20: 9-13; Mark 4: 9-12; Luke 8: 9-10) - in particular "For whoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away, even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand."

Barfield remarks that, taken as it stands, this seems immoral, indeed brutal. But traced to the relevant implied passages of the Old Testament, the parable seems to be talking about idolatry - and in Jesus's time, the major Jewish idolatry was of Pharisaism: idolatry of The Law. That is, seeing the word of God as something 'out there', something literal, something interpreted by expert-rulers to which 'we' need (merely) to submit, passively. 

To paraphrase Barfield (as I understand him) the suggestion is that Jesus is introducing a new era in which we must live from-within, from God-in-us, creatively and imaginatively. In the Gospels; Jesus himself seems to 'model' this life for us; living from the heart, from inner evaluations - by personal prayer, personal revelations, by intuitive and imaginative acts of many kinds.

Suddenly, the whole Method of Jesus seems to make sense! The parables are designed to compel people to use their imagination in understanding (or else, merely be confused) - in their very nature, parables are the opposite of legalism: they are non-rule-like, indirect, inexplicit/ implicit, un-paraphrase-able...

Much the same can be said of the miracles - their 'meaning' is not something that can satisfactorily be set out 'in prose' - in the same way that the meaning of a true poem cannot be set out in prose. And more generally, perhaps especially in John's Gospel (written by his beloved disciple, and one of the great artistic and philosophical geniuses of the ancient world - at least on a par with Plato); Jesus will seldom give a straight answer to a straight question - nearly always he is allusive, poetic, hinting...

The idea seems to be that to understand the Gospels we must meet the words and actions of Christ with a response from within ourselves - and nothing else will suffice! Attempts to extract a 'system of laws and instructions which can be codified and forced-upon people are thwarted (or such attempts at paraphrasing are made to feel, to the evaluation of our hearts, deeply unconvincing, obtuse, manipulative).

Barfield is saying that to someone 'that hath' the capacity to meet Jesus's words and actions with an imaginative response from that which is divine within them; then there is given understanding - and growth towards god-hood. But to someone 'that hath not' this capacity... well the whole thing seems absurd and nonsensical at best, and perhaps a cynical and brutal exercise in evasion and arrogance.

In cosmic terms; the life of Christ marks the (divinely intended) turning-point in the historical evolutionary unfolding consciousness of Man - the subtleties and many aspects of of which I will have to leave-aside at present. (Please read the chapter - and indeed the book; but don't expect a quick and easy comprehension.)

What I take from all this, is a new appreciation of the absolute appropriateness of what Jesus said and did, and the wrong-headed (indeed idolatrous) literalness with which this has been so often misinterpreted by those who 'hath not', who do not understand, who are seeking to make Christianity into just-another-religion of obedience to social control: of passive submission external laws, rituals and rules.

We cannot be given Christianity, we cannot be given an understanding of the meaning of Jesus; each person must gain this for himself or herself by developing within that which Christ wanted us to develop, and gave us the means of developing. But we, personally, must do it - and there are no shortcuts or signposted paths; the Method is active, creative, imaginative, intuitive.

How should I understand a poem, a painting, a piece of music? Think of the nature of the only true answer to such questions, and how an inner development of imagination is required... Analogously; 'what did Jesus teach; what did he mean?' are questions of the same general type. 


Theramster said...

Extremely enjoyable!

Lucinda said...

From Hebrews 8 "I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest."

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I hate to be a grammar pedant (okay, perhaps "hate" is an overstatement), but "hath" should only be used with a third-person singular subject!

I've been brooding over the parable of the sower for a good year and a half now, and this post convinced me to buy Barfield's book.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - Indeed - but the above post is an explanation of why quoting specific passages, 'proof texting', so often leads to contradictory implications (or tortured interpretations).

@WmJas - I know what you mean, but wanted to retain the reference in a slightly jokey (Hollywood Medieval) way - I've modified the passage with scare quotes. Having been Mormon, I think you will find Barfield much easier to understand than most people do; but he is a genuinely deep thinker, not to be underestimated.

The only acount of Barfield's ideas that I found *really* helpful in 'getting' Barfield was the long chapter in Romantic Religion by RJ Reilly - a remarkable, long-forgotten book by a (recently deceased) rather minor US academic from unfashionable colleges and (originally) published by a minor/ obscure university press... 'but' someone who displays an intelligence, knowledge and seriousness of purpose *far* beyond that of the Big Names of his era.

(Rather like Barfield himself considered as a philosopher and compared with the likes of Wittgenstein, Heidegger or Popper. Barfield is at least a couple of levels above.)

BTW Wm - After I wrote this piece and was posting it, I realised it had been (in a way) directed at you - so it seems like the synchronicity arrow hit the mark, as usual.

Kirk Forlatt said...

Reading this enjoyable post took me back to countless encounters with pastors, teachers, and seminary types during my years in organized churchianity. Every single time I skated up to the edge of even suggesting that I trusted my own intuition and instinct in spiritual matters, the panic in the listener's eyes was almost comically obvious.

And one of the most frequent boilerplate phrases I heard time and time again during those years was "You have to be careful with parables. You can never take them literally, and you can't push them too far. Otherwise, you'll have problems in your systematic theology."

Think about those last seven words for a moment. They explain so much in retrospect...

As always, thank you, Dr. Charlton. Thank you for all your work.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kirk - I think the fear is that anything less than an 'objective' list of rules and laws is merely 'subjective', relativistic and every individual will simply pick whatever is expedient for them.

However, this chapter by Barfield comes at the end of a book's worth of dense analysis of the prevalent contradictory ideas concerning the whole matter of objective/ subjective, outer/ inner collective/ individual and so forth. Barfield's argument is that all knowledge always includes the participation of the observing human consciousness - the main difference is whether we are aware of the fact.

But this is too big a topic for a comment: suffice to say that on the one hand each individual must bring his own imagination to bear (must) but the knowledge attained is objective, available universally.

Ben said...

A great post. This is (intuitively, to me) getting to the nub of things!

Lucinda said...

I had wanted to explain that I had discovered the scripture in Hebrews that morning, and then when I read your post, it was a further teaching on the same subject. Synchronicity strikes me as the right word.

Your quote that stuck out to me was "the wrong-headed (indeed idolatrous) literalness with which this has been so often misinterpreted by those who 'hath not', who do not understand, who are seeking to make Christianity into just-another-religion of obedience to social control: of passive submission external laws, rituals and rules." In explaining it to my children, I said that discerning the teachings from man to man, you must honestly ask yourself whether the teaching tends toward agency and personal relationship with God, or whether the teaching tends toward force and social posturing.

Having said that, I do think there is a difference between men and women. I've found it essential to choose associations carefully because of my highly impressionable personality. Women generally seem called to associate with God somewhat indirectly, exercising their agency by choosing to trust the guidance of spiritually-faithful husbands, fathers, male-written-scriptures, etc.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Credit where due: The Hebrews passage you're discussing is a quote from Jeremiah.

Bruce, thanks as always for the book recommendations. I hope they will prove helpful.