Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Testimony of Owen Barfield

In general, all three books I've read by Owen Barfield (whether "real" books or collections of essays) become more "Christian" as they go along. That description would certainly apply to "Philology and the Incarnation" in The Rediscovery of Meaning. If you have time, go read the whole thing here. It is Barfield's "Why I Am a Christian" essay: why a lawyer raised an agnostic, and following his reasoning about evolution (the evolution of consciousness, but still!) would end up believing through reason that the lynchpin of history is Jesus.

The key to Barfield's conversion (if such a gradual process can be called a conversion, really) is his observation of a "reversal in direction of man's relation to his environment" over the course of history. Specifically, he noted this change must have taken place somewhere between Alexander the Great and St. Augustine (two personalities that exemplify the change). More specifically, the change involved the way the word "logos" was used, by Greeks and Jews somewhere around Alexandria, sometime around 1st century BC (definitely, he's thinking of Philo here). He notes that this change took place right after the Stoics* first used words like 'objective' and 'subjective' the same way we do, the first time the self was really defined. Then he found in Jesus the kind of words that would change history in that way -- "the words of life" as Peter put it.

In the introduction to The Rediscovery of Meaning, he put is this way: "Here is the antecedent Unity of unities, here is the interior Transforming Agent of evolution, here is the positive meaning of life on earth, here is the meaning of Meaning itself staring me in the face!"

A million Christians have a million stories of why they are Christians. I find this one oddly comforting, and thought it should be repeated. Can I get an amen?

* = I thought of how NT Wright describes Paul's Mars Hill speech in Acts 18 as an acceptance and confrontation of Stoic and Epicurean doctrine, and now I want to go back and read it with "Barfield glasses" on. For one thing, Paul's quotation of and affirmation of the Greek statement "we are his children" would be right along with Barfield. There's an interesting project there, in how the words of Jesus through Paul are interacting with the words of the Stoics. And Paul's deliberate, even off-putting insistence on bringing it all together by pointing out the impending Judgment Day (something we'd culturally avoid these days) is perhaps a model of the confrontation of Stoic philosophy with the idea of resurrection. Is that the verbal impetus that steered the trajectory of thought?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: The Rediscovery of Meaning, And Other Essays by Owen Barfield

When I first find a new author that really excites me, I usually have a moment of Fall, in which I realize that this new author isn't really "all that." It's my first substantial disagreement with him or her. Maybe with Marilynne Robinson it was a few political comments in her recent book (reviewed above). With J.R.R. Tolkien for most readers it happens about 1/4 of the way through the Silmarillion -- maybe not disagreement, but just not getting it. For Neil Gaiman with C.S. Lewis it was probably the incident of Susan at the door in The Last Battle. Let it be known that I personally think the first of these three examples is the corrent reaction and the other two are misguided (then again, I would, wouldn't I?). Still, there's a moment of disenchantment that follows enchantment, and I knew it was coming with Owen Barfield, kind of like you know that there will be a big fight coming at some point after you get married. The only question is how soon.

As you can guess, I encountered that moment with Owen Barfield and it did take me three books to get there. If Barfield and I have to fight it would be over Rudolf Steiner. ("Rudolf, Rudolf, Rudolf! It's always about RUDOLF with you, isn't it?!") Barfield simply takes too much of his philosophy from this Steiner guy, and the way he talks about him -- not his "writings" but his "findings" no less -- well, I'm kind of glad that I disagree because it gives me a chance to assert my own individuality. There seems to be so much else that Barfield gets right but I am not convinced about Steiner. Which leads to some unconvincing passages about reincarnation as well. (But I've got to remind myself, as much as I disagree, I'm disagreeing with Plato as well, and I do believe the self can survive death -- I'm just a one-time-only kind of guy for many reasons, including sheer economy.)

The bottom line is, it's nice to know I'm not just blindly a Barfield disciple now, and really, the 90% of this book that I don't have a bone to pick with is excellent. I have a few forthcoming blog posts inspired by different topics, which should show that I still find his writing vividly inspirational, and I do feel like the parts of Barfield's philosohy I do want to retain are much stronger now. Looking forward to keeping on reading, even about Steiner, maybe there's something worthwhile there but I'm currently skeptical.

Lest anybody think I'm taking this in uncritcally, I'm not. Definitely, if you're reading Barfield, start elsewhere (or maybe just with the first essay, which gives its title to the collection and justly so, because it is a nice capsule of Barfieldisms). There's a rough dividing line around 1970, in which the stuff published earlier is 95% good and the stuff published later is about 66% good, so maybe it can be chalked up to the attention given him after he retired from law and the increased rate of publication. Still, 66% good is pretty good. I dream of 66% ...

Friday, May 25, 2012

When I Was a Child ... Quotes Part 2

p.130 “I tell my students, language is music. Written words are musical notation. The music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means. … The figure of Christ is our authority. No distinction can be made between his character and his meaning.”

p.157 “To consider means, etymologically, to take account of the stars, for purpose of making a decision. Etymologically, disaster is a bad star. These words are from Latin, which came late into the world, but which expresses a prescientific confidence in the inter-involvement of the cosmos and humankind. This sort of thing is reckoned primitive, so why should it not be among our primal traits? Perhaps it is excluded because it looks too much like metaphysics.”

p.158 “This [selfish genes/neo-Darwinism] is an instance in which a theory that explains everything really does explain nothing. It is rather like saying that life is an expression of the tendency of complex molecules to form in the bellies of stars. However true this may be, there is clearly a great deal more to the story.”

p.160 “We are in the process of disabling our most distinctive achievement – our educational system – in the name of making the country more like itself. … I have seen trinkets made from fragments of Ming vases that were systematically smashed by Mao’s Red Guard. If we let our universities die back to corporate laboratories and trade schools, we’ll have done something quieter and vastly more destructive.”

p.179ff The story of Oberlin, founded as a Christian college where races and genders could learn together (and where alcohol and tobacco were discouraged!), and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. What a liberal arts college can do!

p.184 [Poe’s Eureka!] “Poe would have loved dark matter and dark energy, even though they come at the cost of his ultimate vision of the narrowing parameters of reality, so often imagined in his greatest tales. … What moved Poe to attempt a cosmology, and what made him so confident that he had indeed achieved insight into a great truth? The human mind at its mystifying work, endlessly, sometimes brilliantly, fitting myth and reason to reality, testing them against reality, just for the pleasure of it. Poe was not unaided, culturally speaking. There was the venerable doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the understanding of the first verses of Genesis as describing the emergence of the cosmos out of nothing. What made the ancients consider the heavens in the matter of their origins, and why were their intuitions so hauntingly sound, including the belief that the universe had a beginning?”

p.186 “The theories of human nature that have developed in the modern period attempt to fold us into great nature by making human complexity accidental or epiphenomenal and by seeing in our capacity to do harm the most natural thing about us. This model of reality does not describe our history or our prospects.”

p.187-8 “The exclusion of a religious understanding of being has been simultaneous with a radical narrowing of the field of reality that we think of as pertaining to us. This seems on its face not to have been inevitable. We are right where we have always been, in time, in the cosmos, experiencing mind, which may well be an especially subtle and fluent quantum phenomenon. Our sense of what is at stake in any individual life has contracted as well, another consequence that seems less than inevitable. We have not escaped, not have we in any sense diminished, the mystery of our existence. We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it.”

p.196-7 “To this day, the reasoning of the anti-religionists has the conceptual scale of nineteenth-century science. While the new atheists are ready to embrace the hypothetical multiverse, the idea that being has presented itself over and over again in infinite iterations in which our universe is one, in general the cosmos does not interest them. … Consider the strangely persistent materialism of new atheist science. Its great confidence seems to be based on a fundamental error. It takes whatever has been observed and described as having been explained. To describe the processes of ontogeny or mortality does not explain why we are born or why we die.”

p.200 “What is striking is not only the fact that there is a more or less universal prohibition against murder but also the fact that there is a continual social and individual impulse to find exceptions to it, whether open or concealed. The striking thing about our species is that we create around us a vast need for a moral sense, to which our best instincts are clearly by no means equal.”

p.202 “We came from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous. The study of our trajectory would yield insight into human nature, and into the nature of being itself.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rods, Cones, and Seeing More Colors

Excellent essay ("Spiritual perception and the science of color") found here. Informed by both science and faith -- I don't want to say "integrating" because I believe they're already integrated, we just have to look for it. Here's the first paragraph:

During a recent episode of "Radiolab" exploring the science of color, the hosts hooked me with this early question: “Is the light without or is the light within?” A scientist on the show figured it was both (and surely the Kingdom of God is both within us and around us).

The program was all about color perception and how it varies for different species (and people). Dogs are bi-chromates, meaning their eyes have two cones enabling them to see blue/yellow and black/white, while most humans are tri-chromates, enabling us to see many more colors. Some butterflies have five cones and can see an even broader range. The mantis shrimp, amazingly, has sixteen cones! If all these different species might be looking at the same thing, some would see more colors than others, who, “though seeing, they do not see.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

When I Was a Child ... Quotes Part 1

p.14-15 “The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. Be that as it may, the effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that. … [I]t is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, if taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.”

p.69 “Like old Israel, the United States is often said to be legalistic. And for some reason this is taken to be a criticism and to identify a failing. It might be better thought of as an acknowledgment of the human propensity to sin or error, in tension with an active solicitude for human vulnerability to the effects of sin and error, the two embraced by an unusual awareness, as self-created and intentional societies, of a calling to be “good” societies.”

p.72 “Cranky old Leviticus gave us – gave Christ – not only ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ but also the rather forgotten ‘Thou shalt love the stranger as thyself,’ two verses that appear to be merged in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Still, startlingly gentle laws like these fall under the general condemnation of Old Testament severity, and Calvin’s refinements with them.

“The tendency to hold certain practices in ancient Israel up to idealized modern Western norms is pervasive in much that passes for scholarship, though a glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison is not always in our favor.”

p.89 “It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

p.91 “It appears to me that the Homestead Act was designed to consolidate the North’s victory in the Civil War by establishing an economy of smallholder farming, of the kind that prevailed in the North, as opposed to plantation farming on the Southern model. English agriculture was very close to the kind practiced in the South, with the exception that the gangs on English farm laborers, though so poor they were usually called ‘wretches,’ were not technically slaves or chattel. … Lincoln contained, more or less, the virtual slavery that followed actual slavery.” [Shades of GK Chesterton’s point about workers being like slaves and Walker Percy’s point that the South is very English in nature]

p.95 “We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. … The intention behind these books seems to be only the one that is usual just now, to discredit in the course of laying blame. This is the purpose and method of much contemporary scholarship.”

p.104 [Regarding the conquest of the Canaanites] “Abraham is told in a dream that possession of the promised land will be delayed an astonishing four hundred years until, in effect, the Amorites (that is, the Canaanites) have lost their right to it. We Anglo-European invaders do not know yet if we will have four hundred years in this land.”

p.105-6 “If each member of the community obeys the commandments, then all members will receive the assurance that they will not be murdered, that their households will not be robbed or disrupted, that they will not be slandered, that their children will not abuse or abandon them. The relation of law to prophecy, of prohibition to liberation, is very clear.”

p.123 “The fact is that the hardest of the laws [of Moses], those comprehended in the phrase ‘open wide thy hand,’ and never even noticed to be resented.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: When I Was a Child I Read Books

I've had this book read for a couple of weeks now and I have been trying to find time to write a review that will do it justice. This is not that review. This is what happens when I have to return a book to the library. But perhaps my review can be this: I may go out and buy this book just to own it. How's that?

I do have to note that I prefer Absence of Mind to this book: the former is pithier and more focused on science than politics, and I am more completely behind Robinson when she writes about science than when she writes about politics. Kind of strange for a scientist to say about a novelist, but true. She's more convincing on the scientific issues because of her classical sense of argument and diction, as well as her historically and philosophically grounded content. Somehow she manages to be incredibly erudite without being showy about it. How does she do it? She notes at one point that she is indebted to the style of Cicero more than to a modern writer, that's got to be part of it. But when Robinson argues politics, I find myself answering her back at several points, and honestly, her arguments are shallower. They're still pretty deep.

Thoroughly recommended, although not always agreed with.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Owen Barfield on Design

I've been trying to put my finger on why books like The Grand Design by Steven Hawking seem to be talking past many theists like myself. Hawking goes to great lengths to pin the origin of the universe on M-theory and some sort of fluctuations at the quantum level, so that so "trigger" or external agent is required for the beginning of it all:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

And my reaction is, "So what? It still began." Whether it began externally or internally seems beside the question, at least at the level of mechanism. In other words, if God set it up that a fertile field of nothingness (or false vacuum) according to the rules of M-theory and it underwent a fluctuation producing light, and such a mechanism meant "Let there be light," then I don't have a problem with that. It's kind of cool, actually. Hawking is objecting to an external mechanism as opposed to an internal one, and I don't have a problem with either, for this event at least.

Then I was reading Owen Barfield (there I go again) in an essay titled "Science and Quality" and see this:

"What is important is to distinguish the two principles [of mechanism and organism], not to condemn one and exalt the other. What is important is to distinguish two active principles -- of free life and confining form -- while perceiving their interpenetration at all points. And if we do so we find, once more, that the ultimate distinction lies between 'inward' and 'outward.' Coleridge, as usual, formulated acutely when he defined as follows: 'Whatever is organized from without, is a product of mechanism; whatever is mechanized from within, is a product of organization.' It would be along these lines, I think, that one would reply to those who mistakenly identify organicism, or holism, with the so-called argument from design and reject it for that reason; since 'design' is essentially a pattern imposed from without rather than emerging from within. And as such it is applicable to the products of mechanism rather than to products of organization."

The Big Bang as a pattern emerging from within seems just as wondrous, if not more so, than a pattern imposed from without. And both seem designed in the way that's important. So the main argument of The Grand Design, in my opinion, misses the point. Would Hawking ever read Barfield?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

What do NASA and Van Gogh have in common?

Well, NASA's pictures of ocean currents sure look like a lost Van Gogh masterpiece to me:

Check out the video and commentary at this blog post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Brit Lit Map

Well, you look up and suddenly two weeks have passed. I have a book review on hold and other things in the works, but for today all I got is this very cool map of British literature from Strange Maps:

J.R.R. Tolkien gets Oxford! Of course, that means that C.S. Lewis is relegated to Belfast. But they're both fairly large, so I can't complain. And you could argue that C.S. Lewis is at heart an Irish writer.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir

Stanley Hauerwas has written a lot of book over the years, so I haven't read them all, but I don't think there's one out there that's more accessible than Hannah's Child. It's a memoir that he can't help but do in his own style, and a story of how a working-class child of a bricklayer entered and negotiated the strange world of academics. It's sad and funny, smart and humble. I think Christians should read it, and academics should read it ... so Christian academics should read it twice. It makes me want to reread especially his Gifford Lectures and his book on academia (The State of the University).

Some quotes:

"Creation is not 'back there,' though there is a 'back there' character to creation. Rather, creation names God's continuing action, God's unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ's life, death, and resurrection." p. 158 (I just note this is one of the few times Hauerwas uses the word 'love' instead of his preferred 'friendship', which he usually opts for because the former has been so devalued by common use.)

"Dennis's 'vision' for the school, as far as I could tell, assumed that the church's primary role, a role enshrined in the Methodism of the 1950's, was to support those who think they run the world. In contrast, I wanted a church capable of reminding those who think they run the world that they are in the grip of a deep delusion." p.231

"Moreover, I do not trust intentional communities or people associated with them. They have to spend too much time reinventing the wheel. But Jon makes the Church of the Servant King in Eugene work. The church works because Jon does not have a pious bone in his body, so he and the church know they are no 'ideal.' The community stays healthy because with Jon at their center they have an appropriate sense of humor." p. 248 -- and I hope this describes my church and pastor too.