Sunday, March 4, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 7: Why Christianity Needs Science (and Even Evolution)

[Back to Part 6]

This series began with "Pre-History Never Happened." One might be excused for thinking that some sort of defense of intelligent design or creationism was in store. I was wondering a little about Barfield at that point, myself. But one would be wrong. Look where we end up: "Why Christianity Needs Evolution." Sorry, IDers.

Barfield is one of the strongest proponents of evolution and Christianity I have read. (He's not necessarily a proponent of SCIENCE, but of evolution. Chew on that one.) This isn't some weak-tea theistic evolution in which God creeps in through quantum randomness, either. Barfield's theology of evolution is much more than that, because God is involved in creating and sustaining perception itself, and Barfield's all about perception. This is about changing how we think so much it changes how we see ("figuration" in Barfield's terms), and this is about moving forward, not back:

p.147-148 “To be able to experience the representations as idols, and then to be able also to perform the act of figuration consciously, so as to experience them as participated; that is imagination. … [T]he way of the West lies, not back but forward; not in withdrawal from the contacts of the senses, but in their transformation and redemption.”

In all of this, Barfield is at war with literalness, a brand of thinking that he sees taking us into all sorts of dead-ends. He puts a lot of the problems commonly associated with Christianity down to a literalness brought about (perhaps ironically) by the scientific revolution, a literalness which fights against, among other things, the very rite of the Eucharist:

p.162-163 “The relation between the mind and heart of man is a delicate mystery, and hardness is catching. It will, I believe, be found that there is a valid connection, at some level however deep, between what I have called ‘literalness’ and a certain hardness of heart. Listen attentively to the response of a dull or literal mind to what insistently presents itself as allegory or symbol, and you may detect a certain irritation, a faint, incipient aggressiveness in its refusal. Here I think is a deep-down moral gesture. … We could pursue the matter further and instance, on the positive side, a certain humble, tender receptiveness of heart which is nourished by a deep and deepening imagination and by the self-knowledge which that inevitably involves. Perhaps this is what Blake had in mind, when he called Imagination ‘The Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed for ever’; but we have digressed too far already from the main road.”

p.159 “[The inner experience of the infinite God], on the one side, and on the other that valiant attempt, which began with the Reformation and ended in Fundamentalism, to understand and accept literally – and only literally – the words of the Bible, precisely while their meanings were being subtly drained away by idolatry – these are the opposite and complementary poles between which Protestantism has hitherto revolved.”

“If this book has succeeded in showing anything, it has shown that the only possible answer to the idolatry with which all our thinking is to-day infected, is the acceptance and conscious ensuing of that directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world, which we know to be a fact, whether we like it or not. Is God’s creation less awe-inspiring because I know that the light, for instance, out of which its visual substance is woven, streams forth from my own eyes? ‘Look upon the rainbow,’ wrote the author of Ecclesiasticus: Look upon the rainbow, and praise him that made it: / very beautiful it is in the brightness thereof. / It compasseth the heavens about with a glorious circle, / and the hands of the most High have bended it.

“Do I echo these words less warmly, when I recollect that YHWH is creating the rainbow through my eyes? When I know that to think otherwise is an illusion or a pretence? Does piety depend on initial participation? If so, one thing is for certain: there is no future for it. But fortunately it does not. I did not create my eyes. And if an understanding of the manner of my participation in the appearance of a rainbow does not diminish my awe before its Creator, why should that be the case with the other more palpable phenomena?”

The intimate role of our Creator in creating all things, even the rainbow, means that rigorous pursuit of science can be a worshipful end, if you end up putting it at the feet of God (rather than an idol such as science itself). And this wonder of creation, which science can describe so well, needs to be given to those who can't or don't have time to do the experiments themselves. Barfield describes this in my single favorite quote of his (I printed it out, and I hardly ever print out quotes):

p.164 “There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word. It is these books, not popular theology (however excellently and simply it is written, as to-day it often is) on which the mind of the proletariat seizes as it awakens from its ancient peasant-dreaming and peasant-wisdom. … The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”

Christ is creator of science, and even-handed, humble pursuit of science is a worshipful activity. As someone who has tries to do science this way, and who worships Christ, I have come to the conclusion that evolution is consonant with the way God created. For Barfield, that is not enough. He says something along the lines of "if Christianity didn't discover evolution, it would have to invent it" because it goes together with the concept of the Incarnate Word in Christ so perfectly:

p.167 “I believe that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element of its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two.”

Could Barfield be right? Once we move away from the literalist objection to evolution, and once we see the process through the lens of the cross, is it possible that Christianity and evolution are long-lost brothers? Barfield thinks so. I came at this from a different starting point, but I think I'm close to Barfield here: I believe Christianity is true (more precisely, that Christ is the truth), and that evolution brought us to this point of the Creator's plan. Can there be a revival of the mind in which the two are joined, not just because it's nice, but because it's necessary?

The other side of evolution being necessary to Christianity is that the theory of evolution cleansed nature of the various pagan idols of stream, forest, and tree. No one leaves offerings to these idols anymore in a real, heartfelt way: our perceptions of the world have simply moved on from what they were in the Roman empire. But that desacralization (is that a word?) of nature led to the manipulation of nature -- science -- which led to our knowledge of nature's mechanisms, and which according to Barfield, has led to our worship of the mechanisms. Barfield doesn't say "chuck it all" -- he says redirect that last step to the triune God:

p.185 “If, in Christ, we participate finally the Spirit we once participated originally; if, in so doing, we participate one another – so that ‘men’ once more become also ‘man’; if, in original participation, we were dreamers and unfree, and if Christ is a Being who can be participated only in vigilance and freedom, then what will chiefly be remembered about the scientific revolution will be the way in which it scoured the appearances clean of the last traces of spirit, freeing us from original, and for final, participation. And if what it produced thereby was, as I have suggested, a world of idols, yet, as Augustine of old could contemplate the greatest of evils and exclaim Felix peccatum! so we, looking steadily on that world, and accepting the burden of existential responsibility which final participation lays on us, may yet be moved to add: Felix eidolon!

"Blessed sin" and "Blessed fall" from Augustine; "Blessed idols" and "Blessed science" from Barfield.

At the end of this, I know it's about "putting it all together", but I'm not sure what "putting it together" looks like. Maybe we don't need to know when we start. Like N.T. Wright's story about the stoneworker in the cathedral, maybe we work on our incomplete part and then the cathedral builder lifts our little stone and puts it into the right place. At the very least, Barfield provides another way of looking at the world, and in that way, he has put some things together for me. It's worth being able to put on "Barfield glasses" for a while to see how things look different: a bit more like Lewis's and Tolkien's world perhaps, and a bit less like Darwin's but a bit more like Mendel's or Polanyi's? I don't have a strong conclusion to this summary of his thought, except to say if this is true it will gradually fit things together. If it is true, it will grow, and it will be worth thinking of again. I'll think about it and ... well, the rest of the story is what this blog is for. So till then ... felix eidolon!

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