Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Owen Barfield's Final Participation (God-Man polarity) in a Christian Context

It was seemingly difficult for Owen Barfield to express clearly what he meant by Final Participation of human consciousness - indeed I think he exhibited a reluctance to be explicit on this point.

I now feel I have sufficiently understood Final Participation to re-explain it in my own words; but in doing so I take a step further than Barfield was willing to go in most public fora; and I think I can understand why.

To make Final Participation clear involves acknowledging its basis in Christianity - which has a tendency to alienate non-Christians; while at the same time claiming to move-forward-from, and in that sense 'supercede' Historical Christianity - which would tend to alienate most Christians: thereby leaving Barfield with only a very small audience!

Anyway, whether or not the above understanding is a correct guess: here is my understanding of the assumed historical sequence of Original Participation - going through various phases to our current almost wholly-alienated Modern Western Consciousness Soul - to Final Participation.

The key concept is theosis, which is the process of becoming divine. The consciousness of theosis therefore clearly depends on the concept of the divine: in becoming like-god it depends what we understand by god.

Original Participation was the situation of the first Men - who lived in hunter gatherer societies. They understood the divine to be something like energies in a process of circulation and transformation. Theosis was therefore the living daily experience of participating in these energies and transformations. The system was closed, all is as it was and ever will be. Man is part of the divine, but not a separate self.

This was the childhood of Man.

Then came the start of an increasing degree of self-consciousness, of Man as aware of Himself as an Agent with 'free will'; which brought with it an increasing sense of separation from the divine. At first the separation was only temporary and could be overcome by the activities of priest, performing rituals, in temples - and the ultimate aim was to restore each man into the divine. Mundane life was an exile - the aim was reabsorption of the individual self-consciousness back into the divine consciousness. Man conceived himself as as 'a worm', with the merest glimmer or vestige of autonomy - and that autonomy essentially wicked.

By stages, over many centuries, the separation of self-consciousness and awareness of the self as unique increased until it became almost (but never fully) complete; so that now and for many generations Man regards himself no longer as a worm, but as the only god - which either leads to absolute (but brittle) pride at his self-creation of his own reality out of nothing; or (and eventually) to despair at his belief that therefore reality depends on his own continuous creation and is therefore feeble and temporary and doomed to end with death - Man regarding himself as something even-less-than a worm.

At this stage theosis has stopped, is no longer a purpose, life has no meaning outside of the contigent and ephemeral and private subjective consciousness.

This is the adolescence of Man.

Final Participation is the renewal of a new kind of theosis in which God and the Self are both regarded as real (eternally real) - and there are many selves, each on the path towards divinity. So the aim is not immersive participation in divine energies; it is not reabsorption into the divine; but the aim of Final Participation is instead to participate in the process of ever more, and ever more loving and creative, relationships between the many eternal selves of Men on the one hand and God (in divine multiplicity) on the other hand.

Final Participation is Final because the system is no longer closed (as it was in Original Participation) but open-ended and capable of eternal expansion, as we as individuals each and collectively grow towards a divinity of the same kind and level as God - but an unique, and continually added-to divinity; and with many others (being added-to) all around us, in relationships with us, who are doing the same.

To move towards Final Participation we need to consider the nature of our relationship with the divine - and that we are to understand ourselves as immature and very-partial divinities - but that God has a loving and paternal relationship with us; so we need have nothing to fear from him and an attitude of trust and confidence in him as he will always want the best for us and work for that end.

For Final Participation, therefore, we need to see God as a person and a personal friend; and not somebody or some-thing vast and mysterious to be awed by and needing to be appeased, not somebody to be pleaded-with, nor an alien and incomprehensible being to be worshipped - and not an abstract infinite perfection which we seek to 'lose ourselves' into. At least, such attitudes cannot be foremost and regulative of our relation to God - but only background, exceptional and temporary.

Of Course, God condescends greatly to meet us at our level, and for that we should be grateful; but having said that we just need to put aside that fact and get on with the relationship at our own childish or adolescent level (just as a child knows that the adult is condescending to play, but the play cannot be play unless that condescension is 'forgotten' while the play is in progress). Respectful friendliness, trust, confidence - and an 'equality' which (like the child's in play with  parent, as he grows) is not less real for continually being superceded by higher levels of maturing and diminishing magnitudes of difference. 

Barfield - following Coleridge - saw reality in terms of distinguishable, dynamic but not separable polarities. The Polarity of Final Participation may be between God as an eternal and fully-divine person; and each of ourselves as eternal and partially-divine persons. The poles never to be united, but always bound-together in dynamic process, energized by that thing we could call Love - so long as we are clear that Love contains many positive aspects such as creativity, intelligence, power...

In sum - the movement from Original to Final Participation (leaving-out the long transitional state that occupies recorded history, and in which we still seem to be 'stuck') is therefore centred on the work of Christ; understood as enabling the change from theosis as loss of the self and reabsorption back-into the divine - to theosis as a stronger and maturing self-awarness and consciousness; closer and closer towards the adulthood of a full friend-like relationship between the personal loving God and his growing-up child.

It is the lived experience of this theosis which is Final Participation.

Friday, 29 April 2016

What if The Lord of the Rings really *had* been an allegory of World War II?

In his Foreword to the 1966 Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was at pains to emphasize that the book was not an allegory: in particular it was not an allegory of the 1939-45 World War:

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.

It is interesting to unpack this putative allegory of a imagined allegorical LotR, using what I know of Tolkien from other sources to fill-in gaps or uncertainties:

The One Ring = The Atom Bomb

Sauron = Hitler
Mordor = Germany under National Socialism

Saruman = Stalin
Isengard = Soviet Communism

The Free Peoples = USA and UK
The one who seizes the Ring and enslaves Sauron - presumably would have been Aragorn, Boromir or Denethor = Roosevelt/ Truman

*

In reverse, we could play with the idea of what would have happened in WW II if it had followed the lines of LotR...

The plot would focus on the destruction of the Atom Bomb (and implicitly all knowledge required to make it) by a small team of English patriots led by George Orwell, who infiltrate Germany and destroy the evil research establishment which is making the A-bomb.

The climactic end would be the death of Hitler (as the ready-for-use prototype explodes?) and the end of the Nazi regime in Germany with the return of the Holy Roman Emperor.

En route there would be the destruction of Soviet Communism, the restoration of the Tsar, and the exile of Stalin. Stalin then makes his way to England, is welcomed by the corrupt Socialist Prime Minister, Konni Zilliacus; then Stalin invites foreign mercenaries, takes over in a secret coup, enslaves the native English and manages to pollute or destroy much of the countryside before Orwell and his English patriots return and raise a successful counter-revolution; after which Stalin is stabbed by his deputy Lavrentiy Beria - who is immediately executed by a mob of pitchfork-wielding rustics (despite Orwell's protests).

England repudiates industrialization, is demilitarized, sealed against immigration, and made into a clan-based dominion ruled by benign hereditary aristocrats; and made a protected nation under the personal care of the restored King Albrecht - the exiled Duke of Bavaria, and heir to the US monarchy, who had been given the throne by popular acclaim during the course of the war, and is now ruling from his palace in Richmond, Virginia.

Orwell, traumatized and made consumptive by his wartime experiences, sails West toward the sunset in a small boat and eventually arrives in... Ireland; where he ends his days peacefully as a subsistence crofter...


No wonder, then, that Tolkien cordially disliked allegory, in all its manifestations.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The initial appeal of Charles Williams

The first time I tackled Charles Williams was after reading Humphrey Carpenter's group biography The Inklings, which was during late 1987 when I was living in Durham Castle (part of University College) as a resident don, wearing an academic gown at all mealtimes - which were taken at High Table in the 'medieval' hall; and attending a variety of somewhat Inkling's-esque groups for eating and drinking, conversation, and discussion of our reading and writings.

What most interested me about Charles Williams was the idea of a supernatural 'real' world behind the everyday world, and The Place of the Lion was the book which most attracted me. I was also interested by his idea of romantic theology - especially the Via Positiva - which I interpreted as a path to higher consciousness via the creative life; and his mystical idea of The City as a microcosm of Heaven (I think I read some of the essays in Image of the City).

At that time, I was not a Christian, but I was very interested - in a detached way - by Christian theology, monasticism, ritual and various aspects of Christianity. I was reading and much influenced by the ultra-Liberal theologian Don Cupitt; I subscribed to the Dominican journal Blackfriars, I sporadically attended the college chapel and once read a lesson there, and choral evensong at Durham Cathedral (located only a hundred yards from the Castle). I read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue with broad approval - with its call for a revival of Thomism.

In sum I was a serious dabbler on the edges of Christianity - but in a way that made no fundamental difference to my life or beliefs, and made no demands upon me: none at all.

Anyway - from this context I attended a couple of evening meetings of a Book Club which included some of my college friends - including a meeting in a small modern house on a housing estate where we discussed a Charles Williams novel: I think it may have been Many Dimensions. The reason I am unsure is that I had been unable to locate a copy, and indeed only a couple of the participants in the meeting had actually read the book; which was out of print and very hard to find. Indeed, it was an absurd choice for a Book Club! - but there you are.

I have a strong recollection of the flavour of that meeting, but nothing of the content. The flavour was strange to me - because we were located in this very mundane suburban setting, a group of very respectable but junior academics (or academic-related people - such as librarians, and a college chaplain as I recall); discussing very strange supernatural matters with an attitude of seriousness, and as if such things as Charles Williams described in his novels might actually happen - at any moment.

As I walked away from that meeting some thirty years ago, it was a dark late evening and I looked about me at the night sky and the lights of the city and thought how strange people were - how strange I was; that nobody could have guessed that behind the curtains inside a small, boxy, semi-detached, modern furnished house there would be a group of people discussing the breakthrough of divine and demonic forces into exactly such a world - even a sense of expectation that such thing might be just out of sight and about to change everything - if not this evening than tomorrow, or next week.

It struck me that behind the quietest, most 'conforming' and respectable of people there lurked extraordinary, wild wishes or fantasies - yearnings that were only semi-serious, and expressed with very English politeness, reserve and diffidence; yet which were so strange that they must have sprung from depths.

Ever since, Charles Williams has carried for me something of the flavour of that evening, and that group; and of a time when I learned something surprising about the nature of people.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review of Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer. Bandersnatch: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and the creative collaboration of the Inklings. Black Squirrel Books: Kent, Ohio. 2016, pp. xix, 200 (including notes, bibliography and index). Includes 5 illustrations by James A Owen.

In 2007 Diana Pavlac Glyer published The Company They Keep, which was the most significant biography of The Inklings since Humphrey Carpenter's original biography some thirty years earlier. I found TCTK to be a sheer delight - having read it through at least three times and consulted it frequently.

Glyer's important achievement was to undo the major error of Carpenter's mostly excellent biography, which was Carpenter's insistence that the Inklings was just a group of Jack Lewis's friends and having no other or wider significance: Carpenter was insistent to the point of perversity on this point, even devoting a whole chapter ('A fox that isn't there') to hammering it home. But in this important respect Carpenter was about as wrong as it is possible to be! - as Glyer has proven.

Glyer's first act of clarification concerning the Inklings was to distinguish the small, select writing group who met on 'Thursday evenings' (not always Thursdays, in fact) from the larger, more diffuse group who met to converse at lunchtimes (Tuesday, later Monday) at the 'Bird and Baby' pub.

Having made this crucial distinction, Glyer was able to demonstrate, by hundreds of examples, large and small(lovingly culled from published and manuscript sources), that what held the Inklings together and constituted their raison d'etre was writing: in essence the Thursday evening group was primary, and it primarily existed for reading and commenting-on work in progress.

It was this Thursday evening group who supported and shaped the composition of The Lord of the Rings and other significant work especially from Jack and Warnie Lewis, and Charles Williams. And this was done through a range of interactions from shared enjoyment and encouragement to write, through verbal and written comments to argument and criticism (including, rarely, negative criticism of a damaging type - notably Hugo Dyson's de facto veto on reading Lord of the Rings while he was present during the 1945-7 period, which Glyer believes led to the end of the group).

The pleasure of TCTK and Bandersnatch is that Glyer provides examples of all these interactions - so we get a microscopic close up of the Inklings at work on their main work - which was writing.

I personally would not have wanted TCTK any differently than it is - which is a somewhat haphazard treasure trove of main text and extensive footnotes with the usual scholarly apparatus plus a valuable biographical index (including original material) by David Bratman - but I recognize that this rather seventeenth century style of book is a barrier to many or most readers - who prefer a biography to read more like a novel or at least a personal memoir; and this is what Glyer has provided with Bandersnatch. It contains essentially the same material and argument as TCTK but in a single continuous narrative.

A secondary fuction of Bandersnatch (and also TCTK) is to argue for the importance of groups to writers: a tertiary function is as a kind of self-help book to apply lessons from the Inklings to the forming and sustaining of writers groups.

I believe that Glyer is correct to emphasize the importance of writers groups and collaborations - the Romantic movement was founded in Somerset and Bristol and transferred to The Lake district by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey; and the New England Transcendentalists grew up around RW Emerson. More recently I used to know the novelist Alasdair Gray from Glasgow, Scotland - who had been part of a formal writing group presided over by Philip Hobsbaum, and which included other published writers such as James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard - these continued to work and publish together for some time.

Hobsbaum (who was a poet, critic and university teacher) indeed seemed to have a special gift for forming successful writers groups, as he moved between universities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Hobsbaum) - perhaps his most eminent group was in Northern Ireland, and included future Nobellist Seamus Heaney.

So, it is clear that many writers benefit from a group of the right kind. On the other hand, the talent or genius must be there for a group to assist in drawing it out - and it is a feature of genius that (purposively - but by trial and error) it seeks the conditions for its own fulfilment - so I would regard writers groups as essentially a spontaneous coalescence of individual genius; rather than, with Glyer, giving the writers group a primary role in creativity.

Monday, 25 April 2016

The incompleteness of argument in Rudolf Steiner's Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception - the "least read, most important book Steiner ever wrote" according to Owen Barfield

I have recently been grappling (almost literally!) with Rudolf Steiner's The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception (1886) - on the basis that (according to Joel Wendt) Owen Barfield described it in the mid 1980s as 'the least read, most important book that Steiner ever wrote' ; this comment coming from Barfield - a man who had by that time been dedicated to Anthroposophy for more than sixty years, and was (inter alia) intellectually perhaps the leading British Anthroposophist of all time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vFSDqwLiok

It is not easy to read and understand Goethe's Conception - but fortunately I had also read Steiner's following two books which provide the philosophical back-up to the Goethe Volume: these are Truth and Freedom (1892) and The Philosophy of Freedom (1894).

Having given these books my best effort I have reached the following conclusion, that Steiner's views are not wrong but are fatally incomplete - so that what he states as proven is not proven but merely asserted; and that for completeness and cohesion the argument requires the framework of a personal God (i.e. theism); but Steiner did not become a Christian until 1899, so these books did not really make sense at the time they were published.

This is a significant fact from the perspective that Steiner regarded these three volumes as the foundation of all his subsequent thought, Barfield apparently/ probably agreed - and subsequent Goethian science is usually described in the terms of reference established by Steiner in 1886 (in other words, without reference to a deity).

I will attempt an extremely bald summary of what I understand Steiner to have been arguing in these three books, and especially 'Goethe's conception'  - and what is required to complete and make sense of the picture.

Steiner is trying to prove logically that thinking (of a certain kind), as such, is valid - because everything else is inevitably and ultimately known in terms of thinking. On the one hand he shows, I think successfully, that Men have nothing other than thinking as their ultimate knowledge, so that it makes no sense to strive for something more or other than thinking as the basis of knowledge.

So, thinking is the only reality. Steiner goes on later to make a kind of 'pure' thinking the basis of spiritual science - including the claim that it really is a science.

But Steiner also tries to argue that thinking (with some qualification relating to the nature of this thinking) is necessarily valid - that thinking is true, correct, really real. I personally think this is impossible to prove in the way Steiner tries to prove it; the set-up simply does not contain the necessary knowledge elements for such a proof to be possible. 

So Steiner shows that we cannot have anything other than thinking but not that this thinking is a correct 'picture' of reality. Somebody might say that this is the case for humans as a species, but that this might be an arbitrary constraint of the way humans happen to be set-up - also that different humans may be set up differently, with different cognitive processes leading to different 'intuitions'.

In sum - Steiner as of 1886-94 does not successfully prove that intuitive thinking is, as he claims, intrinsically and necessarily 'scientific'.

However, I believe that Steiner (and Goethe, and Barfield) are indeed essentially (and with some qualifications) correct in this assertion - I believe that it is true that Man is set-up to be a scientist, and the true (Goethian) science is built-into our thinking.

What I am stating here is that the real reason that this is true is (to put it simply) because God created Man that way, and God created reality so that Man could understand about reality everything that he would spontaneously ask and need to know.

So there are indeed (as Steiner was at pains to state) no limits to our knowledge of that which we want to know; and (as Goethe was at pains to state) Man is indeed the most exact instrument for attaining scientific knowledge; and therefore all technologies, statistics, computers, machines and mechanisms are intrinsically prone to mislead due to their dazzling 'offer' of what is actually a misleading and ultimately false precision - unless all this is subordinated to the intrinsic and built-in human way of knowing.

In sum - Steiner's early 'epistemology' trio of books are indeed of great importance and vital relevance both to understanding and setting-right our modern condition; but they absolutely require that theistic, and probably specifically Christian, framework which Steiner and Barfield both attained - although both Steiner and Barfield (and perhaps Goethe too) perhaps neglected, or at least underestimated, the logical, rational role that was provided by theism in underpinning their conception of science.


Friday, 22 April 2016

The Inklings in a group portrait

At last someone has done a picture of the Inklings: James A Owen, for a newly published book Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer (review to follow).


Up till now, the only example was mine own masterpiece, which I posted two years ago accompanied by the challenge to actual artists to do better:

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/my-attempt-at-group-portrait-of-inklings.html

I am prepared to acknowledge that Owen has indeed done better! I like the picture, although the likenesses are not good (good artists are not necessarily good at capturing a likeness) - but the important things is we now have a proper group portrait of The Inklings, only about 70 years after they last met!

First of many - I hope...


If Barfield is accepted as the Inklings' philosopher, in a lineage of Coleridgian Romantic philosophy focused on The Imagination, then the Inklings as a group-identity are not 'reactionary' but looking towards the future evolution of consciousness

If it is assumed that the Inklings can be characterized as more than the sum or their parts and more than a shared essence -
http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-inklings-group-theology-implicit-in.html
Then Owen Barfield may be regarded as the philosopher of the Inklings, and Tolkien as the supreme practical exponent; Lewis as the mediator and Williams as the initiator and guide.

Despite that these individuals disagree - we can synthesize from various of their elements a group-identity from selected and complementary aspects of each; a group-identity which is not an average, and not shared by all of them, and to which none of them as individuals would subscribe.

Whether we do this or not is entirely a matter of what use or value we find in such an idea - working (as we should) in the broader context of the Inklings core and shared and universal ideal value - which was indeed Christianity.

(Christianity defined in some simple, basic and 'minimal' sense).

Taken in this spirit - the Inklings have an intellectual lineage (via Barfield) which links them with Romanticism - especially Coleridge and Goethe; as transmitted via Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield himself. In other words, a focus on Imagination as the primary mode of thinking.

And furthermore, this lineage is forward-looking and not reactionary. I mean, this lineage does not look back to an ideal of immersive 'Original Participation' (rather like the un-self-conscious living in nature of Bombadil, the Ents, Silvan Elves, or to some extent the Hobbits) - but forward to an as yet only partially glimpsed and achieved Final Participation.

As a first example to consider: The Lord of the Rings - in terms of the deeply-appreciative reader's engagement with the book - takes its place in this tradition as being a supreme example of Final Participation (albeit temporary and partial).

So, instead of regarding LotR as in itself a yearning for the past and embodying a vision of history as a long decline and defeat; we instead regard it in terms of how we think LotR - how the book works in our thinking as an objective reality.

And because the objective reality of LotR is one which we cannot take 'literally' (it is a feigned history) we then experience it as fully-imaginable, fully-real; a mode of thinking that is more-satisfying-complete-and-imaginable-than-mundane-life (we cannot, or at least do not, appreciate workaday life in the modern world as fully imaginable - hence it does not seem fully real) - yet a reality that we simultaneously 'know' is essentially and substantially a consequence of our own minds.

We imagine, and we know we imagine, and this imagination is very-highly engaging: we participate in it.

So, although Tolkien rejected Barfield's anthroposophy; and although Barfield did not personally enjoy or appreciate the Lord of the Rings, the tow can be formed into a complementary structure which expresses some distinctive to 'The Inklings' - yet which is apparent only in retrospect and to those who were not themselves Inklings.

I am far from saying this is the only or best way to consider The Inklings - but it seems a legitimate, coherent, and potentially very fruitful line of enquiry.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The link between evolution of consciousness and reincarnation in the work of Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield's central idea, and the one for which he is best known, is the evolution of consciousness - meaning that the nature of human consciousness has changed throughout history such that people in different eras and places had very different relationships with the world: these changes fall into three general categories of Original Participation, the Observing Consciousness and Final Participation.

He traces the evolution of consciousness mainly by observing the characteristic changes in the meaning and usage of words, which seem to display a cohesive development - and also looks at other cultural evidence. Barfield's idea of evolution in this regard is not natural selection, but a developmental process (akin to the growth and differentiation of a living entity): the emergence and unfolding of human destiny, interacting with the agency and free will of individual humans.

What is seldom appreciated or emphasized is that for Barfield the evolution of consciousness is divinely designed, and bound-up with reincarnation. To put it concisely, the reason for the evolution of consciousness through history is that this provides the necessary conditions by which successive reincarnations of  human spirits may learn what they require to develop towards divinity.

So, for Barfield (although this is hinted at much more often than made explicit) it is God who 'provides' the evolution of consciousness in order that reincarnating human spirits may have the necessary experiences they need to growth towards the ultimate goal of Final Participation - whereby firstly, and stepwise, the Ego or Self has become separated from its original 'unconscious' immersion in the environment and strong in its purpose and will - awake, alert and in-control; then secondly the now strong and purposive Self/ Ego comes back into a participatory relationship with The World.

To underlying rationale (the 'point') of the evolution of consciousness is, for Barfield, bound-up with the reality of reincarnation; and therefore those (such as myself) who disbelieve in reincarnation as the normal human destiny, yet who believe in the evolution of consciousness, need to be clear that we differ from Barfield; and are, indeed, denying the main reason for evolution of consciousness as Barfield understood it.

To put it bluntly: those individuals who are sympathetic towards Barfield's core idea of the evolution of consciousness yet who do not believe in reincarnation, need to explain what the evolution of consciousness is for - if not to provide the conditions necessary for educating the reincarnating human spirit.  

**

Note: My personal 'take' on reincarnation is that it is not the normal human destiny - but that reincarnation happens to some individuals for particular purposes - for instance, a sage, prophet or saint may be a reincarnate who has returned to assist in the divine work - indeed I suspect that many of the wise intuitive individuals such as Rudolf Steiner and perhaps Owen Barfield himself, who claim direct personal knowledge of the reality of incarnation, are themselves actually some of these rare and atypical persons. As a believer in Mormon theology, my explanation for the evolution of consciousness is that humans have a pre-mortal spiritual existence before being voluntarily incarnated into life on earth - and the evolution of consciousness allows pre-mortal spirits to be 'placed' - by God - into the historical era which best addresses their personal spiritual needs: i.e. their specific needs for mortal experience of a particular kind.

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=reincarnation 


Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Inklings 'Group-Theology' implicit in Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams

My ultimate reason for reading the Inklings is a 'spiritual advisers' - as a group, and not only as individuals, I believe they constituted an unique and profound Christian theology for our times.

My new-found, recent ability to understand and empathise with the work of Owen Barfield has led to some 'notion' of how the Inklings work as a complementary group - and how one might derive from this group a theological perspective which is not found in any one of them alone - and, furthermore, which would not be endorsed by any one of them.

What I am suggesting here is, then, something greater than (or at least different from!) the sum of the parts contributed by individual Inklings. And, to reiterate, I am aware than none of the four would be likely to affirm the final totality that I derive from their combination.

*

In other words, what I am doing here is making a judgement concerning the core contribution of each of the four main Inkling authors (CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield) and assembling these into a single cohesive philosophy or 'ideology' - which includes elements of all four, each unique to that individual, yet combined in a complementary fashion.

(I also believe that each of these authors is abundantly worth individual study! So this synthesis is not meant to replace that study, but to provide an additional angle on them.)

I have already attempted to do this at various points on this blog, but without including as a vital participant - because I didn't previously understand what he was up-to. However, I now find that Barfield adds something which makes for a very different philosophy than when he is either left-out or regarded as merely confirmation of the other authors.

*

The Inklings work is mostly about imagination - and Barfield's unique contribution to the Inklings perspective is that imagination is potentially real knowledge - i.e. imagination may provide true knowledge about this world: this mortal life on earth and its meaning and purpose.

Without Barfield, there exists a gap between the Inklings account of imagination and the nature of religious, Christian, living. In other words, without Barfield, the Inklings cannot address and alleviate the problem of alienation in the modern world - the problem that we feel our subjectivity to be cut off from reality.

In sum, CSL, JRRT and CW all accept that there is a qualitative gulf between mortal life and Heavenly life - and that all men are in a state of exile. Barfield, by contrast, sees the difference as quantitative and the gap as something which can be closed - initially for brief periods, but with the possibility of an increasing and more sustained closeness between our 'everyday' modern mortal experience and a full participation-in and knowledge-of divine things.

Metaphysically, this is because Barfield is a follower of Rudolf Steiner who adhered to what he termed 'monism' - that there is ultimately one world, and that all the supernatural and ideal elements are, and are meant to be, in one world. This is in contrast to the kind of 'Platonism' seen in (especially) Lewis and Williams - where the real world is (and should be) transcendent; elsewhere, outside of mortal linear time and 3D space.

The element Barfield adds is therefore that imagination is (or can become) not only an analogy or symbolism, but actual knowledge of worlds that the other Inklings regard as higher and other.

Barfield also brings a very different understanding of the role of 'modernity' in terms of Christian history. Tolkien and Lewis see modernity as in essence a bad thing, a corruption - and would advocate a return to earlier modes of thinking. Williams is not far from this - but his Romantic Theology (his primary idea, in my view) is put forward as an optimistic future possibility - something that might revitalize Christianity and lead to a future of new and great achievements. But CW remains profoundly alienated with respect to the human condition: deeply pessimistic and dark in mood and spirit.

Barfield also regards modernity as deeply unsatisfactory - but sees it as a necessary transitional stage to a potentially greater, and ideal, future state of consciousness - superior to anything which has gone before: a 'grown-up' Christianity which combines the 'participation' in life of earlier phases of human existence with the self-aware, purposive, clear-headed and 'scientific' way of thinking of modernity. Barfield is therefore optimistic about human possibilities (although realistic about the fact that modernity seems to have rejected these possibilities and instead descended ever more deeply into materialism and positivism).

*

In sum, while Barfield's analysis and diagnosis of present spiritual problems is similar to CSL, JRRT and CW - his 'treatment' involves moving forward from this situation to a situation that is superior to any which have yet existed. This movement forwards (progression) is to be achieved by that 'evolution of consciousness' which constitutes Barfield's master idea; and the consciousness aimed-at is not the trance-like or dream-like ('shamanic' or classically mystical) states which are the focus of Lewis, Tolkien and Williams's interest - but by a self-aware, clear, purposive primary thinking of Man as a wholly-free agent.

This is seen as the mode of full, adult imagination; and it is the imagination of this state which constitutes our direct contact with reality - and the solution (however transitory) to modern alienation.

Much more can, and I hope will soon, be said on this theme of the Inklings Group-Theology - but that is enough for now!


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Reviews of Unancestral Voice and Night Operation by Owen Barfield

Unancestral Voice (1965) is usually described as a novel, but it isn't: it is a philosophical 'dialogue', of the type pioneered by Plato. All the interest lies in the philosophy; and this is extremely interesting. I have now read the book twice, pretty carefully, and although I have learned a lot, I still feel that I have only scraped its surface.

Owen Barfield is, indeed, a very deep and rigorous thinker, who has a very appealing authorial persona - in other words it is a great pleasure to spend time in his company. However, he is not easy to read - or, at least, I do not find him so; and it took me quite a few years and attempts before I manged to tune-into him.

Unancestral Voice is about metaphysics - that is, it is concerned with the most fundamental level of understanding about reality. Indeed, its focus is pretty much the same as the very first philosophers of Ancient Greece, which is the nature of change. What happens when things change - what is it that changes, what remains the same - how can we conceptualize and explain this?

In particular, Barfield writes about evolution, including ancient ideas and the more recent theory of Natural Selection; and (speaking as a professional biological evolutionary theorist, who has read and thought about the subject a great deal for some 25 years) I have found Barfield's insights revolutionary - far, far deeper than anything else I have ever read on the subject.

There is also consideration of Rudolf Steiner, DH Lawrence, the sexual revolution, modern alienation, law and justice - and the whole is (very indirectly, but firmly) put into a Christian context.

I don't suppose very many people would find this book anything like as interesting as I do - but I can assure potential readers that any efforts to get to grips with it will be time very well spent; and indeed I think that, within Barfield's oeuvre some of the material here is not dealt with anywhere else - Unancestral Voice is thus close to being an indispensable book. I already know that I shall be re-returning to it - and more than once.

*

Night Operation (1975) is also called a novel, and described as dystopian science fiction; but again it is actually in the Platonic Dialogue genre - and the descriptions of the future and the (rather limited) action of the (undeveloped) protagonists is of little or no dramatic interest.

So, it ought to be read more as an essay than a story - and taken as such it is very interesting and at times heart-liftingly beautiful. It is also surprisingly waspish - even aggressive! - in its satire of modernity, sexuality and what we would now call Political Correctness.

Barfield saw clearly the way that things were going in The West - and the ways that problems would emerge and be dealt with: he is prescient in capturing the quality (rather than the detail) of our bizarre and insane world as it has turned out forty years after the book was published.

I think this very strong, in-your-face, anti-Leftism may be why this book has been so persistently mis-described in the accounts of it which I have read over the years (since most Barfieldians seem to be on the Left politically, and spiritual rather than religious - they would not relish those 'reactionary' aspects that I appreciated).

So the book came as a great surprise to me - very different in flavour and focus from what I expected.

However, Night Operation is very short indeed! Just 64 pages and running, I would guess, at considerably less than 20,000 words - yet it was sold in 2008 at the price of a full novel. As it was, I had to pay a lot to get a copy, even secondhand.

So, overall, I would say that Night Operation is well worth reading, but not really worth the cost.

The Owen Barfield Literary Estate would do better to make Night Operation available free online, and then perhaps the book might get the readership it merits.


Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Owen Barfield as Christian and Theologian

Here are a couple of book chapter synopses that I have written for a proposed volume of essays on Owen Barfield:


Mis/ Understanding Barfield as therapeutic: the role of Christianity in Owen Barfield’s metaphysical system

Barfield explicitly stated that ‘Idolatry’ (or ‘literalism’) was the besetting sin of the modern era, and that the ‘one thing needful’ was therefore a symbolic apprehension of life. Much less emphasized and infrequently mentioned was Barfield’s (unorthodox) Christianity – which provides a mostly implicit framework for his writings. This essay will suggest that there are two levels of understanding Owen Barfield’s work – one with, and the other without, this Christian framework. Barfield’s greatest impact so far has probably been among non-Christians with an eclectic range of ‘Perennial philosophy’ approaches to spirituality, Anthroposophists, and those with a broadly ‘post-modernist’ attitude to objective reality such as post-Jungians. These thinkers have been crucial in supporting Barfield’s work during his life, maintaining his reputation since his death, and elucidating and clarifying Barfield’s distinctive ideas. But in setting aside his Christianity, a degree of misrepresentation is inevitable and the resulting understanding of Barfield’s achievement ends-up as being broadly psychological, sociological and ‘therapeutic’. In other words, Barfield is seen as essentially providing a kind of therapy, which has the potential to heal modern Man’s alienation. I will argue that this interpretation is correct but incomplete; and that when Barfield’s ideas are restored to their original Christian context he can be seen as essentially a theologian rather than a healer.




Examining the nature of evidence for Barfield’s Evolution of Consciousness

Barfield often stated that his core idea was the evolution of consciousness, and also that he arrived at this idea as a consequence of his study of the changing meaning of English words (as described in his earliest books Poetic Diction and History in English Words); this insight being later being confirmed by the work of Rudolf Steiner. In later works, Barfield made further logical arguments to support a ‘developmental’ model of evolution, beginning with a generalized consciousness and only later becoming focused into solid bodies and discrete selves. I will argue that in his life’s work, Barfield was in reality working at the most fundamental philosophical level of providing a new metaphysical basis for human life – and that therefore the ‘evidence’ he provided in support of the evolution of consciousness was not truly ‘evidence’ – because metaphysics is the framework that controls the nature of evidence; therefore there cannot be any empirical or observational evidence either to support or to refute a metaphysical system. What Barfield was instead doing was to provide an historical personal account of the development of his metaphysics, a variety of illustrations of the consequences of his metaphysics, and an examination of the completeness and coherence of his new metaphysics of evolution as contrasted with mainstream Darwinian Natural Selection. This clarifies the metaphysical scope and nature of both Darwin’s and Barfield’s evolutionary theories, and the comparison between them is therefore primarily to be seen as a life choice, rather than being a matter of evaluating the balance of evidence. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

The name ‘Nodens’ by JRR Tolkien

This is a rare and hard to access example of Tolkien's detailed philological reasoning, of the same kind which he applied to the Old English word Earendil, and which led to the Silmarillion legendarium.

In this piece he begins with a single Latin word derived from a Roman inscription, and – by multiple comparisons with other languages, inferences concerning sound changes, and a deeply informed and scientifically-disciplined use of creative imagination, links this word to a range of historical and mythical associations.

In other words, beginning with a word, he ends with a god and the nature of the society in which he was worshipped. I have edited this version for the general reader – so it is not word by word an accurate transcription – I have changed the punctuation, left out pronunciation accents, and added or changed the occasional word to clarify or join-up sentences.

I have also cut about a half of the length, to focus on Tolkien’s argument rather than the supporting philological evidence, which includes a lot of ancient languages and phonological script – and which, anyway, I do not remotely understand. 

***


The Name 'Nodens' by JRR Tolkien

The name Nodens occurs in three inscriptions from the excavation, and may also have occurred in a mosaic. The inscriptions most probably represent a Keltic stem inferred to be 'noudent'.

Now this is precisely the form required as the Old and Middle Irish form of mythological and heroic name Nuada. Nuadu was Argat-lam – King of the Silver Hand who ruled the Tuatha de Danann – the possessors of Ireland before the Milesians. 

The Tuatha de Danann may with some probability, amid the wild welter of medieval Irish legend, be regarded as in great measure the reduced form of ancient gods and goddesses. Although it is perhaps vain to try and disentangle from the things told of Nuada any of the features of Nodens of the Silures in Gloucestershire, it is at least highly probable that the two were originally the same.

That figures of British origin could intrude into Ireland is not impossible. Cuchulinn (Setana) himself is suspect. But the fact that outside Ireland (where the name figures largely) Nodens-Nuada occurs only in Britain, in the west, in one place, and nowhere else in the Keltic area, never in Gaul, has led to the more likely conjecture that Nodens in a Goidelic god, probably introduced eastward into Britain, unless one can believe that the Goidels reached Ireland by way of Britain and left his cult behind him.

It is possible to see a memory of this figure in the medieval Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’) – the ultimate origin of King Lear – whose daughter Creiddylad (Cordelia) was carried off, after her betrothal to Gwythyr vab Greiddawl, by Gwynn vab Nudd, a figure having some connexions with the underworld.

Concerning Creiddylad there appears anciently to have been told a tale of an everlasting fight, which has often been cited as a parallel to the legend in Old Norse of the endless battle of Hethinn Hjarrandason and King Hogni over Hogni’s daughter Hildr whom Hethin carried off. Gwynnvab Nudd and Gwythrare to fight for Creiddylad every first of May until doomsday, when the final conquerer shall win her.

It is conceivable that Lludd (father) and Gwynn vab Nudd (suitor) both owe something, in the late confusion of traditions, to a common ancestor. Certainly the normal Welsh form of Nuada-Nodens would be Nudd. The fixing of the father’s name as Lludd may have owed something to alliteration with his surname.

In the Scandinavian story, the father (Hogni) is one of the pair of everlasting combatants. But even if this is true, and Lludd Llaw Ereint is related to Nuada Argat-lam, it of course proves nothing concerning the place from which this legendary figure came ultimately into Britain.

Of Nuada Argat-lam it is told that he was at war with both Firbolg and Fomorians. He lost his hand in the first battle, and the royalty passed with it for seven years to Bress, chief of the Fomorians. The Tuatha de Danann made a new hand 'with full motions of a hand' for him. Hence his surname. For twenty years he regained his royalty, but finally perished in battle against the Fomorians. 

Other Nuadas appear in Irish. These may be in part scattered memories of an originally single mythological figure, though this is not a necessary conclusion, since in other cases 'divine' names are found later surviving as ordinary personal names. 

There was Nuada son of Tadg (Teague), supreme druid of Cathair the Great, king of Ireland in the second Irish epic cycle, and ancestor of the Ossianic line of heroes. This cycle purports to refer to events of the second century AD, when Nodens was already, presumably, worshipped in Britain; but the cycles are not reliable history. The Coir Anmann ('Fitness of Names) is a manuscript of circa AD 1500 in Middle Irish, but it is some centuries older than its hand, and contains much very ancient tradition...


Of Nuada Airgetlam it says: Streng mac Senghainn cut off Nuada's right hand in combat at the battle of Mag Tured Cunga, when the Tuatha de Danann invaded Erin. The leeches of the Tuatha de Danann put on Nuada a hand of silver with the complete motion of every hand. '

If not an established certainty, it is, then, at least a probable theory that there was a divine personage of whom the chief later representative is the Nuada of the Silver Hand in Irish tradition, and that this Nuada is the same as the Nodens which occurs in curious and suggestive isolation in these British inscriptions. 

Linguistic considerations unaided by other data can do little, usually, to recall forgotten gods from the twilight. The form of this name is, however, favourable.  In Gothic, the earliest recorded language of the Germanic group and preserved in a form spoken at a time when Nodens' temple possibly still had votaries, clear traces remain of an older sense. There gu-niutan means 'to catch, entrap (as a hunter)'. 

Whether the god was called the 'snarer' or the 'catcher' or the 'hunter' in some sinister sense, or merely as being a lord of venery, mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. 

Even in the dimmed memories of Welsh legend in Llaw Ereint, we still hear an echo of the ancient fame of the magic hand of Nodens the Catcher.




Reference: Appendix One of the Report on the excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and post-Roman sites in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 1932. Volume 50, Number 1. Oxford University Press: London, pages 132-7.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Owen Barfield's linkage of the historical evolution of consciousness with personal reincarnation

The idea of an evolution of human consciousness throughout history has been a part of spiritual thinking for more than a century - I know it mainly through considering the work of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield and William Arkle over the past couple of years.

(I encountered the idea over thirty years ago summarized in the work of Colin Wilson, but did not then pay much attention.)

The idea of an historical evolution of consciousness seems to go-with a belief in reincarnation, because reincarnation allows each person to participate in the different stages of evolution that are aiming-at a fully divine form of consciousness.

Steiner and Barfield describe this aimed-at state in some detail - in essence it combines on the one hand a direct involvement with, and participation in, reality such as was characteristic of early man and remains characteristic of early childhood; with, on the other hand, a fully alert, self-aware, purposive and analytic consciousness which is characteristic of the adult consciousness and the modern phase of Western history.

So, the idea is that I am personally experiencing the distinctive modern, alienated consciousness now - including the knowledge and aspiration towards a future state; however, in earlier lives I have also personally experienced, and benefited from, earlier phases of human consciousness. At some point later this life, and perhaps further lives, I may incrementally, a step at a time, learn how to combine the positive qualities of all phases. This aimed-at fully divine conscious state is what Barfield calls Final Participation.

According to Steiner and Barfield, these earlier life phases include non-incarnated lives - lives when we were conscious but had no body. So the theory is really one of multiple lives, rather than re incarnation.

Therefore the human spirit or soul (i.e. that entity which is reincarnated) is here conceptualized as undergoing an educational process toward which each life is contributing.

Repeated lives, many lives, seem to be necessary in order to allow for the very large amount of experience and learning required to bridge the gap between being a man and becoming a god. Certainly, one mortal life seems grossly inadequate for this, especially given that most human lives in history were terminated either in the womb or in early infancy - a small minority of humans have reached adulthood, and even fewer of these have had a full experience of marriage, family, maturity and growing old etc.

So, evolution of consciousness and reincarnation seem to make a neat package. However, this package is, if not incompatible with Christianity, at least somewhat alien to the structure of Christianity; which places a great deal of emphasis on the individual life which we are experiencing now, and sees 'this life' as having potentially decisive consequences for eternity.

And certainly, while reincarnation seems to described in the Bible - most notably in the case of John the Baptist apparently being a reincarnated Prophet Elijah - there isn't any scriptural description of a scheme of reincarnation as the norm. And especially not of multiple lives.

My interpretation is that ancient Christianity saw reincarnation as true, but as an exceptional possibility, done in exceptional cases and for specific purposes - rather than as the standard procedure for the majority of people.

Does an exclusion of reincarnation then rule-out the evolution of consciousness throughout human history? No, but denial of reincarnation with multiple lives does limit the role of evolution of consciousness in the lives of individual spirits or souls - it breaks the link between the evolution of consciousness in history and the evolution of my consciousness and the specific consciousnesses of every other individual.

Put differently, the arguments which (in particular) Owen Barfield makes for different types of consciousness in human history, such as his insights into the changing scope and meaning of words, may well be true; but they lose their relevance to the evolution of my consciousness and your consciousness if we were not present (in earlier lives) actually to experience the several stages of this historical evolution.

In sum, the historical evolution of consciousness is a matter of historical but not personal interest, if we ourselves were not present during that history.

My own belief is therefore that I accept Barfield's description of human consciousness having changed throughout history and in broadly the way he describes; and I also accept that we are meant (or destined) to achieve that mode of consciousness Barfield terms 'Final Participation'. But I do not accept that the two are causally linked - for instance I do not believe that I have, myself, personally participated in the historical phases of the evolution of consciousness during previous lives.

Rather, I see the evolution of consciousness as a sequence which is recapitulated in different scales in different situations: e.g. through human history, in each person's individual development from childhood to maturuty, and also in the largest cosmic scale of our salvation and divination across eternity.

I therefore would modify the Steiner/ Barfield model, since I regard this evolutionary sequence of consciousness as a basic and necessary process in terms of Man as a whole and also individual men working towards fuller divinity. And I think it is because the process is basic and necessary that we see it appearing and re-appearing here and there throughout reality; operating at many scales and across many time-frames.



Monday, 11 January 2016

Tolkien's Epic Fail - the tale of Turin Turambar

I have again been listening to The Silmarillion on audiobook - this time in the order as published, and have just finished listening to the Turin Turambar section.

I have written before about my dislike of this part of Tolkien's oeuvre

http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=turin

and I found that this was confirmed on the latest reading.

Those who especially like this story are advised to read no further! I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

Indeed, I think it could be shown that there are objective flaws in this part of the Silmarillion when regarded in the context of the whole - it is essentially a failure when considered a part of the epic.

Turin simply does not have enough good qualities to be a hero - indeed he is overall a thoroughly wicked person, a villain. But not a hero corrupted into wickedness like Feanor, or others of Tolkien's traitors and turncoats - Turin seem bad, dislikeable, dangerous from the get go.

Turin is apparently handsome, and a superhumanly effective fighter - but his courage, while great, seems fuelled almost wholly by negative emotions such as hatred and resentment; and therefore hardly counts as a virtue.

At best he seems more like a berserker, a deadly weapon that can be turned against anybody or anything, rather than a true hero.

Therefore, Turin's character simply cannot bear the weight of his assigned role in the legendarium - in particular, his prophesied role of being the person that finally kills Morgoth in the final battle.

Furthermore, the device (in the children of Hurin sections) of having the plot driven by Morgoth's curse does not fit into Tolkien's universe, it is alien to a world created by and ruled by Eru, The One - and comes into it from the nihilistic world of the Norse (or rather Finnish) pagan stories.

In sum, I regard the Children of Hurin in general, and the Turin Turambarstory specifically, as a jarring and dis-harmonious intrusion into Tolkien's mature world.

My personal feeling is that Tolkien had a sentimental attachment to the Turin story, as having been one of the very earliest of his developed stories developed from his first linguistic love of Finnish; and he just could not bring himself to do what he ought to have done according to the dictates of artistic integrity: deleted Turin from the Silmarillion; and consigned his tale to a separate universe.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Tolkien's Tree - a collage


Made from pieces of bark retrieved from the remains of 'Tolkien's Tree' - his favourite Pinus nigra found in Oxford's Botanical Gardens,



and damaged in a storm of 2014, such that it had to be cut down.


And so I paid homage...



Saturday, 28 November 2015

What kind of elf would you wish to have been? What kind would you actually have been?

There are many types of elf:

http://valarguild.org/varda/Tolkien/encyc/articles/e/elves/elftypes.htm

And many specific elves mentioned by Tolkien:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Middle-earth_Elves


Just for fun: 

1. Which type of elf would you most wish to have been - and/ or which specific elf do you most admire?

2. Which type of elf do you think you actually would have been - if this is different - and/ or which specific elf do you most resemble?


Note added, my answer:

It is, of course, tempting to want to be one of the highest elves - the Noldor - like Galdriel, of Glorfindel, because of the super powers. But somehow I never have.

Most of the time I wanted most to be a Silvan elf - probably one of the anonymous elves of Lothlorien; for whom life was simply a cycle of days filled with simple pleasures such as living in tress surrounded by beauties of nature, poems, singing, food and drink.

But in reality I think I would have been one of the Sindar - a Grey Elf - neither as wise and mighty as the High Elves, nor as simple and care-free as a Wood Elf - but in-between; knowing only middle earth, but with a latent irresistible desire to migrate to the undying lands that could be triggered by a mere sign of the sea.

I might therefore actually been one of the minor Sindar courtiers of the Elven King in Mirkwood - living undergound (which I would not have liked) enlivened by hunting and fighting in a forest under constant threat from dark things; and waiting... 

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Lord of the Rings is not a Trilogy

Obviously it isn't

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilogy 

It is just a novel (usually) published in three volumes: a three volume novel. 

But:

1. It is nearly-always called a trilogy.

2. It led to (nearly) all of the fantasy novels since Tolkien being called - but not actually being - trilogies.

That's it, really...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The nature of Charles Williams's failure to repent adultery


“I might almost have been capable of repenting, but as it would lead nowhere, I decided not to.” (p. 247, note 784). According to Grevel Lindop (p. 246) this has something to do with Phyllis Jones (by then, Mrs. Somervaille), and the two preceding sentences are “I was provoked by a temptation to wish that nothing had ever happened. And that surprised me.”

Cited by Davil Llewellyn Dodds from from The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop, quoting a letter of 15 February 1935 to Anne Bradby (later, Mrs. Ridler) in the comments to a post at The Oddest Inkling blog. 

https://theoddestinkling.wordpress.com/2015/11/04/it-still-scares-me-descent-into-hell-guest-post-by-suzannah-rowntree/

This passage seems significant to me as evidence of a refusal to repent - but the argument that Williams failed to repent does not hinge on it.

My understanding of repentance is that it is not so much about feelings (and certainly not about feeling guilty or ashamed - although these feelings may be helpful), and certainly it has nothing to do with Christians sinning any less than other Men, nor is it about repentance being an effective way of improving behaviour - as it is about acknowledging God's law as Good, and admitting the failure to live by it.

In CW's case it would be saying that what he was doing with Phyllis (and the others) was adultery and wrong.

Even though the extramarital infatuation helped him write poetry, and even if he was not capable of stopping himself from continuing in his adultery, and even if repentance “would lead nowhere” in terms of behavioural change – Williams ought to have repented, he must be clear that adultery is against God's moral scheme.

Williams probably could not gather the strength to break his addiction, just as many drug addicts cannot - but that is not the Christian problem: humans are weak, and Christ did not come to save perfect Men but to save sinners (including far worse sinners than CW - whose transgressions were trivial in the scheme of things that includes murder, rape, theft etc).

When Williams says that repentance is futile because it “would lead nowhere” he is making a profoundly wrong statement – because repentance is not about worldly effectiveness; but about eternal effectiveness – repentance is nothing less than the difference between salvation and damnation: for a Christian repentance is the most important thing of all (CS Lewis certainly understood this).

So Williams certainly could and should have refrained from defending adulterous infatuation - even if in a hard-to-understand and roundabout way - in his writings on Romantic Theology including The Figure of Beatrice.

It is this considered written defence of his own personal sins that I would regard as Williams's most grave failure to repent; because he did not need to write it, indeed he went to considerable efforts to write and publicize it; and the fact that he nonetheless did write it meant that he was not merely sinning (everybody does that nearly all of the time) but was promoting sin in public discourse, by denying it was sin and instead saying it was a virtue - that is, by failing to repent.


See also my review of The Third Inkling

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Charles Williams on TV - a review of Lewis

http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/review-of-tv-programme-lewis-charles.html

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Charles Williams's underlying personal misery and despair as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of his theological convictions

In her Introduction to The Image of the City, a collection of essays by Charles Williams, Anne Ridler states that 'At the centre of Williams's teaching lies this dogma, that the whole universe is to be known as good.'

She then goes on to describe how Williams lived in a state of underlying misery - that he said he would have declined the gift of life, if offered; that he had a death-wish, that he did not hope for eternal life but would prefer everlasting unconsciousness, that the world lived in a web of distress, that the life of young people was hell... and so on,

The question is how Charles Williams went from a core conviction that everything is good, to a life of such total distress.

I think the answer is quite simple, which is that Charles Williams really believed, really lived by, the idea that reality was outside time, that all times were simultaneous - that what applied now applied forevermore. He was a profound Platonist - in believing that time, change, decay and corruption were superficial - the reality was time-less, unchanging.

Many, many Christians have said such things throughout history - but few have really believed them: Charles Williams was one of the few - and he was intelligent enough to find the implications inescapable and deeply contradictory.

If Life is good - and this is Life - and real Life is eternally itself... then this must also be good - and it seems terrible.

In my understanding, Charles Williams was a victim of the poison of what might be termed Classical Metaphysics in Christianity: the kind which says that life IS good - always has been and always will be. Most people are too emotionally shallow or too lacking in philosophical rigour to feel what Charles Williams felt as the implications of mainstream, standard, Christian theology.

Williams could never find reassurance, or relief from this state; because he was correct - the implications flowed from the assumptions; and the implications were tragic. The life and resurrection of Christ was, by this account, tragic - as revealed in Williams's most heart-felt essay The Cross where he concludes that the thing, the only thing, which makes the underlying reality of a good universe to be bearable, is that God also and voluntarily submitted to its justice and suffered its agonies when he became Christ.

If that is not despair - it is a mere - unconvincing - whisker away.

And how often, how usual, has been this tragic interpretation of Christianity the prevailing emotion among the deepest thinkers?

And what a contrast this has been to the un-philosophical and optimistic 'Christianity' of Christ himself, of countless 'simple' Christians, and the 'good news' of the gospels.

The difference is, I think, quite simple - and it is related to time. the simple, commonsense Christian - the non-Platonist, the non-philosopher - naturally regards Christianity as being about a future state of good - not an eternal good, in which all times are and will be equal.

So 'simple' Christianity is about God as an aim, not about good as an actuality; and Christian hope has been based on faith that the state of good will happen, not that good has already happened.

Sophisticated Christian theology superficially seems to be positive and optimistic in its claims of Heaven being here-and-now-and-always because of the un-reality of time - but its philosophical implications are dark, miserable and pessimistic (and difficult/ impossible to square with the good news of Christ) - in that ultimately things can never be better than now. And if, as is the case, we cannot see this now, then there is no reason to assume things can ever become better.

This is a false distortion of the plain Christian message of hope based on the optimistic conviction that time is real. Because time is real - that is linear, sequential; things that seem bad now may really be bad (we don't need to assume that bad-seeming is 'in reality' good), but bad things really can get better than they are now, and the Christian faith is that we know by revelation  that things really will get better.

In sum, Charles Williams is a better, a more rigorous, a more honest philosopher than most Christian theologians - and he lived and experienced the consequences of his theology. Since these consequences were so dark and despairing, the life of Charles Williams in relation to his theology makes a reductio ad absurdum of Classical Theology: i.e. the consequences of Classical Theology demonstrate its erroneous assumptions.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Charles William's Romantic Theology: valid innovation or sophisticated rationalization?

I regard Charles Williams's idea of Romantic Theology/ Positive theology/ via affirmativa as true, important and fruitful: his most significant theological work.

But in the detailed working-out (post Phyllis Jones) Williams seems to become bogged-down, and fatally to confuse the idea; by trying to justify his own failure to live properly by something which is actually quite simple.

In other words, it seems clear to me that a Christian Romantic Theology can only be about aiming for monogamous, faithful, creative marriage - and Williams's hyper-complex/ obscure attempt in The Figure of Beatrice to work into it the possibility or even necessity for later extra-marital infatuation/s, was never remotely coherent intellectually speaking - while being all-too-obviously self-serving in light of biographical revelations.


I was re-reading yesterday the strange early pages of Descent of the Dove (1939) when Williams talks about an experiment or 'method' (which sound like Tantric sex) that he asserts was part of early Christianity; of 'using' (using is exactly what it sounds like) sexual stimulation - e.g. a man sleeping alongside, embracing, some attractive young woman, short of consummation - in order deliberately to arouse lustful emotional energies, which may then be redirected into religious devoutness...

This practice is described as 'dangerous with a kind of heavenly daring' and its rejection by The Church is described in terms of pandering to the 'weaker brethren'; and instead preaching the safe, implicitly dull and mediocre path of 'monogamy and meekness'.

Well, we now realize that Williams had been doing exactly this kind of thing (but with a more sado-masochistic flavour) for many years, and this continued until he died. However, Williams's usage was explicitly directed towards writing more or better poetry, rather than to activate Christian zeal - which difference, I would have thought, eliminated all historical defensibility from his actual practice.

Or was Williams conveniently deceiving himself by conflating his poetry writing with Christianity - or was this equation indeed reasonable?


Did Williams regard himself as one of the 'weaker brethren' who tried but failed to use a hazardous but powerful religious practice in his own life; someone who unfortunately succumbed to the dangers of this activity? The passages in Descent of the Dove seem far too positive about the practice for this to be the case.

Or did Williams in contrast regard himself as a successful practitioner of a valid Tantric Christian path?

It certainly seems to be the latter - since he showed no signs of repenting the Phyllis Jones affair or any of the other more causal and mechanical versions of it; but instead was publicising, advocating and justifying these practices (or, something with methodological similarities - if different purposes).

I infer Williams regarded his multiple and planned experiences of 'Tantric' sex as positive, perhaps necessary; and as something which other people ought also to be adopting...


Yet for all these tangled deceptions and self-deceptions; I believe that Williams's Christian insights cannot (or at least should not) merely be dismissed - not when so strongly endorsed by authoritative figures including the most important Anglican lay thinkers and writers of his era -  CS Lewis, TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers (also WH Auden) - all of whom were friends and knew Williams and his work in great depth.

Such dilemmas abound in studying Charles Williams, and when trying to achieve an overview of the man and his work!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Mini-review of The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

When I came to read Charles William's novels, I was expecting to like best The Greater Trumps - partly because I had a sort of fascination with the idea of Tarot cards; no doubt dating from a self-consciously 'trendy' teenage children's series which had one of the very best theme original theme songs I know - together with some shockingly dated graphics...


But, sadly, I have not enjoyed this novel - despite several attempts to read it. I have just finished the latest - which was the first time I have succeeded in getting through the whole thing, in order, without skipping.

It is always difficult to be accurate about why I don't like a novel - but the short answer is that I do not find much to like here. I find the style pretentious, sloppy and turgid (some paragraphs of purple description extend over more than two pages), the plot is unconvincing and rather dull, and I dislike each and every one of the characters!

Furthermore, I think the book's depiction of 'Good', notably in the character of Sybil, but also Nancy, is, actually, bad - Sybil is not only smug and tedious, but she is not what I would regard as a good person at all! Her 'forgiveness' is so quick and glib that it seems much more like frivolous insensibility - she seems more like a Pollyanna-robot than a Saint.

I particularly dislike the insistent and recurrent symbolism of 'hands' which comes out on almost every page (or so it seems).

It was an effort to finish the book, and even more of an effort to keep track of what was going-on.

My rating? Two stars, from a maximum of five.






Friday, 16 October 2015

Romantic theology: Charles Williams versus the Mormons (Mormons win!)

I first came across the idea of a Positive (as well as a Negative) Christian theology in the writings of Charles Williams - he also called it Romantic Theology and the Via Affirmativa or the path of affirmation of images. The general idea was that Christian theology had typically been a path of negation, denial, asceticism, celibacy - but that there was also a (neglected) path focused on romantic love, art and poetry, richness of imagery etc. Williams regarded these as equal alternatives.

But it is hard to see how they could be equal, since they are so different - alternatives, yes, but in real life one or other of such vastly different paths is surely to be preferred; one or another must become the focus of societal aspiration and organization - one cannot aim both at being a celibate, solitary ascetic hermit or monk; and also at being a husband and father engaged with 'the world'.

Charles Williams knew (so far as I can find) nothing about Mormonism - and he would likely have found it to be boring or unpleasant if he had known anything - but Mormonism has for a long time been advocating and practicing something pretty close to Positive Theology: a Christian 'way' focused on marriage, family and engagement (and with no tradition of monasticism or the eremitic (reclusive) life.


Fundamentally I believe there are very different aspects of human psychology at work behind the positive and negative paths. The negative path aims at the relief of suffering, and the positive path at making life more fulfilling.

To feel the desire for the Christian negative path seems to me a desire to escape the sufferings of this world and live, instead, in a state of static bliss - absorbed in a permanent communion with God (who is, in essence, an abstract entity about which nothing positive may be asserted): doing nothing, simply being.

In the negative path, Love is seen as a sameness, a fusion of wills, the loss of barriers and all strangeness.

And there is no sex - indeed there are no sexes: maleness and femaleness are lost.


To desire the positive path is to wish that the best things in life be amplified and sustained - it also stems from the concern that static bliss would (sooner or later) become boring; and the conviction that the only thing which is not, ultimately, boring is actual, real, other-persons.

The dyadic goal of Mormon salvation can be seen in this light - the ultimate bliss is not the state of an individual soul in permanent communion with God, it is a man and woman in a permanent and divine Loving relationship at the centre of a network of loving relationships including God the Father and Jesus Christ (who are solid persons).

The difference between this version of the positive ideal and the negative ideal is profound - because in a permanent and eternal dyadic and sexual relationship between husband and wife, there would not be a desire for fusion and sameness but rather a delight in fundamental and complementary difference.


Sexual difference, and sexuality, both entail difference - a you and a me: not communion nor fusion nor loss of self nor consciousness. Instead a perpetual delight that 'we' are not the same, but 'fit together'. There needs to be the perpetual possibility of being delight-fully surprised; which means that there can never be full communion. Indeed if communion is full, it renders void the separateness and necessity of the dyad.

If a husband and wife become one, they stop being husband and wife.

There is indeed a desire for surprise, for open-ended possibilities. Once static bliss is put aside as a goal; it becomes essential that eternal life be interesting, rewarding, creative and (in some sense) progressive or evolutionary - changing, growing, developing without end-point or end. Otherwise - if life were static, or merely cyclical - it would become predictable and boring, and we would prefer a state of blissful loss of self.


It seems to me that Heaven must either be mostly like either the Negative or Positive ideal and that God would have a preference between these goals for Man - but I do not see why Heaven would have to be exclusively the one or the other.

So I see the Positive Way as primary, and God's first wish for us, and the basis upon which eternal life and Heaven are organized. But I see the Negative Way as an option available (on Earth and in Heaven) to those who - more than anything - wish to escape from suffering and hope to lose-them-selves in blissful communion with the divine.


Charles Williams descriptions of Positive Theology are at least difficult to understand, and probably fundamentally incoherent - this is because Positive Theology is metaphysically Pluralist - or at least implies this; while Charles Williams was very much a Monist who sought always to reduce apparent dichotomies (e.g. Good and evil) to unity. 

If relationship is an ultimate goal and possibility, then there must be at least two irreducible entities to have the relationship - because if Man and Woman can be reduced to one, and Man with God can be reduced to one, then reality is One; and Positive Theology merely an indirect and off-route means to the same end as that which Negative Theology aims-at directly: viz oneness. 

So Mormons - as pluralists - are the true Romantic theologians; and Charles Williams was fundamentally and ineradicably confused!