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?

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