Barfield and the landscape of Imagination
So, there I am drinking a pint of beer. My life of ministry did not begin within Unitarianism, but in the Church of England. I did a curacy in the diocese of Portsmouth, which is essentially (if you don’t know) the probationary period you need to undertake before you can become a fully-fledged priest within your own parish. And the curacy part was quite enough for me to realise that the Church of England was not for me, for many reasons, but it essentially came down to my inability to be authentically me in that context, unable to roam freely across the landscape of my own curiosity. And my ability to do that, to freely explore ideas, to think about them, to talk about them, as I’m doing now, is at the heart of my vocation. It's why I get up in the morning.
So, I’m drinking my beer in a pub in Oxford. The pub’s name is ‘The Eagle and Child.’ I lived in Oxford for a year before I took up my post in Ipswich. The reason I was in Oxford is as I was trying to get out of Anglicanism, my wife Cat was herself trying to get in, and it just so happened that around the same time that I resigned from the Anglican Church, my wife was accepted to train for ministry in Oxford to become a priest herself. So, I had the very odd and strange experience of resigning from the Church of England, and immediately going to live in a college where they were training priests for the Church of England. A very strange time in my life. So, I spent much of that time reading, writing, and preparing myself for what I believed and hoped was about to follow – a ministry in the Unitarian movement. I spent some time in Oxford, particularly in this pub, ‘The Eagle and Child’, reading some books, and drinking my pint.
The pub is famously where the literary discussion group ‘The Inklings’ used to meet, famously with the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. As you sit there, you can imagine them around the crackling fire, reciting Nordic poetry to one another. One of the less well-known of the Inklings was the philosopher and poet Owen Barfield. He was foremost a good friend of C. S. Lewis, and they would spend much time together arguing about the nature of reality. This was before C. S. Lewis became a Christian; he was notably converted to Christianity through arguments he had with Tolkien. Anyway, Lewis had initially gone to Oxford as a rather determined atheist. And as an atheist he argued with Barfield on the nature of reality, and more significantly on the importance of the imagination. Lewis, at the time, held that reason told us what was true, and that the imagination gave what was true expression. Barfield, on the other hand, argued that imagination itself could tell you what was true as well. The reason Barfield believed this is he was reading a lot of poetry, and poetry to Barfield seemed to offer up a whole new world of meaning. The world of imagination was not simply a nice added extra, the domain of the loafer, but could offer a felt change in our consciousness, allowing one to access a whole dimension of life not otherwise accessible. A much more romantic view.
It would be remiss of me if I did not at least begin with some Biblical exegesis (I am the minister of Ipswich after all). Our first reading was from the Gospel of John (John 3:4-10), and we had the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus is a character who only appears in the Gospel of John. We’re told he was a senior Jewish leader and a great teacher in Israel. He’s notable because the Gospel writer actually treats Nicodemus quite favourably. For the most part, Jewish people don’t come across very favourably in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John, but Nicodemus is an exception to the rule. If you’re looking for the roots of Western antisemitism, the New Testament is the place to begin. Nicodemus, though, is portrayed as someone who is at the very least asking the right sort of questions. Jesus then gives his explanation about our need of being “born from above”; he says ‘the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Now, what’s interesting here is the word ‘wind’ - ‘the wind blows where it chooses’, and the word ‘Spirit’. In English the word ‘spirit’ corresponds with an internal reality, whereas the word ‘wind’ corresponds with an external reality, the natural movement of the air. But in Greek, it’s the same word being used, the same word which is correctly translated in one moment as wind, and in the next as spirit, and that word is ‘pneuma’.
So, Owen Barfield, in one of his books, ‘Speaker’s Meaning’, actually talks about this very passage, and the distinction which our English language now draws between words with an external meaning, such as ‘wind’, and words with an internal or symbolic meaning, such as ‘spirit’. In the Greek, with the word concordantly carrying both meanings, there is a greater richness in what Jesus says, which is lost in our English translations. When Jesus speaks of ‘pneuma’, he’s invoking a plethora of ideas, from wind, to breath, to our essential vitality. In English the word ‘spirit’ also carries a localised sense to it, but the word ‘pneuma’, like the wind that “bloweth where it listeth”, has a much more universal quality to it. This I think changes the sense of the passage quite dramatically. I personally find the notion that we must be awoken to the universal soul which moves across the face of our planet far more palatable.
Barfield used the word ‘pneuma’ to illustrate what he believed was a trend in language more generally. He contended that over the course of human evolution language had shifted from being rich and suggestive, each word pregnant with meaning, towards each word having, as a general rule, a more narrow and precise definition. Given this, given that this was the way that ancient languages were constructed, it tells us that the way ancient peoples perceived the world was very different, seeing the world as they did through a more poetic, and metaphorical lens. In other words, there has been an evolution in human consciousness. And note that my use of the word ‘evolution’ there does not mean ‘improved’; that is a common misuse of the word. All this then, takes us back to where we were, the argument between Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis on the importance of the imagination, an argument which they actually referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as the ‘Great War’. Is it possible to enter that more poetical domain of the human consciousness, and therein perceive the world differently? Like our ancestors did, like Barfield did, when he was reading the poetry he appreciated, and therein glean truth, glean insights not otherwise accessible - not accessible through reason, that is.
Okay, so the other person I have not yet mentioned, but he is also an important part of this conversation, is Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian philosopher of sorts, writing the generation before the Inklings, in the turn of the Century. He was an esotericist, and he founded his own movement called ‘anthroposophy’. Owen Barfield, more or less, popularised Steiner’s work in the English-speaking world, and for that reason most people today discover Steiner through Barfield, although for me it was the other way around. Barfield wasn’t, however, so much a convert of Steiner, rather he just recognised a great deal of concordance between what he was already thinking about, and what he discovered when he read Steiner’s work. Steiner’s whole philosophy, or religion, is about recognising and seeing the world in this more vivid way, as it were through a more imaginal lens - perceiving reality through the inner eye, if you will, in a clairvoyant way. Seeing the world through that more poetic or metaphorical lens, with the use of active imagination.
Okay, so all this comes down to a shift that both Steiner and Barfield recognised in our human perception. The world is literally showing up to us differently now, to how it did for our ancestors. And I think this shift goes a long way in explaining our current predicament in relation to our received religious language, as, for the most part, it really isn’t working for us anymore. I can illustrate this point for you. If you take, for example, any miraculous happening in the Bible, such as Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, and you come at it with 21st Century questions and a rationalist liberal mindset, what comes out the other side is stuff about tidal movements, or sustained winds causing the tide to abate. You get naturalistic explanations, complete drivel basically. Our need to read and understand things in such an exacting, formalized, narrow way, stymies our ability to read it at all. We can’t simply reduce such episodes to a consciousness we already feel comfortable in. As someone once said, we don’t have ears to hear.
Now, perhaps this is no loss. Perhaps our shift in human consciousness is for the better. Perhaps we don’t need the insights of old-time religions, or the insights of any number of imaginal worlds. Perhaps all those myths have nothing for us now. And I am honestly torn on that question. Torn as any good post-modernist would be - I believe everything and nothing. But I would certainly be very suspicious of anyone who wanted to claim with any certainty that there is no value there to be gleaned, that there is nothing there to be discovered. My intuition tells me that it is a land brimming with wisdom and insights, and as such, it is a landscape worth travelling into. And if this is correct, even partly correct, then it would follow that there is something within us, in our inner world, calling us to a higher state of consciousness, calling us to change. And this is quite pointed for us. It’s quite antithetical to our contemporary Unitarian movement. We are so good at accepting one another, affirming one another, creating safe spaces for one another. But challenging one another, or calling one another to do better, or inviting one another to consider that there is a possible progression in our consciousness to be had, a development which we make possible by travelling into our interior worlds, well, that is more challenging, that moves us out into uncomfortable, uncharted waters.
But this is exactly what Barfield would have us consider. He would suggest that our participation in the world now is missing something, that the evolution in our human consciousness has set us on a trajectory towards greater atomisation, towards a greater awareness of ourselves as individual souls set apart from the great totality, the cosmic poetic whole of the universe. And if we were to carry on down this path, it would lead to greater and greater alienation, a hell of sorts. The challenge for us is not to go back. We can’t go back, we can’t now sacrifice our individuality for a cosmic sense of wholeness - we must do both, we must be fully individuated beings that seek after a deeper communion with that universal soul which moves across the face of our planet. We must pay attention to our inner worlds, and re-discover that rich, poetic, metaphorical language, and re-discover the imagination, and recognise it for what it is: a doorway into seldom-trod realms of wisdom.