Saturday, February 25, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 4: Israel, Idolatry, and Time

[Back to Part 3.5]

Barfield next turns his attention to the ancient civilization that struggled most with idolatry, the one that had injunctions against it in their 10 basic laws and yet had a long history of worshipping images and importing statues of foreign gods into the very temple of the un-imaged God: Israel. From Abraham to Elijah, iconoclasts are an essential part of Israel’s history, and in his own campaign against idols, Barfield spends some time talking about the foundation the literature of Israel provides to his own intellectual enterprise. The story of Israel helps to clearly define the “idols” in the subtitle of the book (and brings to mind Asher Lev’s In the Beginning, with its emphasis on Abraham’s smashing of the idols):

p.110-111 “[I]dolatry may be defined as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons; and an idol, as an image so valued. More particularly, idolatry is the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object. … Striking, as the Jews did, not only at the practice of idolatry, but at the whole religion of the Gentiles centred round it, their impulse was to destroy, not merely that which participation may become, but participation itself. … The idols, the Psalmist insisted, were not filled with anything. They were mere hollow pretences of life. They had no ‘within’.”

We still need this message of anti-idolatry, especially in this deist age of mechanisms within mechanisms:

p.160-161 “What the Psalmist wrote of the old idols is true no less of the idols of the twentieth century. ‘They that make them are like unto them.’ The soul is in a manner all things, and the idols we create are built into the souls of our children; who learn more and more to think of themselves as objects among objects; who grow hollower and hollower.”

Israel’s relationship with YHWH is intense but unmediated by images or idols. Barfield strikes a note here that I don’t agree with, that natural theology is utterly absent from the Old Testament, although it is interesting to think about how much natural theology is in the statements of Jesus as opposed to the Old Testament. We probably have a disagreement of emphasis rather than kind:

p.108 “If, moreover, we review the Old Testament as a whole, we shall scarcely find there suggested what we find assumed by both Aristotle and Aquinas, namely, that knowledge of God’s creation can become knowledge of God. In the Old Testament the relation of man to God is the only thing that is of any importance at all, but it has nothing to do with detailed knowledge – unless by that we mean a knowledge of the moral law.”

It's clear that striking differences can be drawn between this Jewish thought and the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and friends. Barfield distills the differences down to the Greeks thinking in terms of space but the Jews thinking in terms of time:

p.150 “But I think it is true to say that, just as by looking back through the Greek mind, we bring to life the apprehension of form in space as an image or representation, so, by looking back through the Jewish mind, we bring to life an apprehension of form in time – that is, of events themselves, as images, whether of the past or future, or of a state of mind.”

“The second is a far more difficult achievement for us than the first. But I believe anyone who would well consider the way of experiencing Old Testament history, which is implied in the Psalms and in the Jewish liturgy, and then again in Christian art before the Reformation, would understand what I mean. To immerse oneself in the medieval Mystery plays and in those sequences and parallels between Old and New Testament, which are the very backbone, the essential formal principle of the Cathedral sculpture, is to feel that, in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation.”

“For non-participating consciousness it is either, or. A narrative is either a historical record, or a symbolical representation. It cannot be both; and the pre-figurings of the New Testament in the Old, and the whole prophetic element in the Old Testament is now apt to be regarded as moonshine.”

But of course, Barfield rejects this either/or thinking and embraces the narrative as both. The people of Israel thought in terms of a grand narrative story that ran through time, and saw all the previous events of their peculiar history as pointing forward to fulfillment in a king to come, and times of suffering, and the return of God to the mountain of Zion. To talk about how it all came together, however, we have to return to Barfield's favorite subject: the nature of language and of the word itself.

[Forward to Part 5]

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