Sunday, February 26, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 5: The Creative Word of God

[Back to part 4]

If it seems odd that Barfield could wait this long without mentioning the theology of the Word of God, it's only because he was saving up for this moment. Barfield's theology is tied intimately with the concept of wisdom and logos, the word by which Israel's God spoke the world into existence and the logical framework which holds it all together, instant by instant. This God, through his revealed words, gave to Israel His name, YHWH, and the Torah and Temple (think of the long passages in Exodus and the historical books describing these structures, in words). God gave speech too: Adam could name the animals, Moses spoke with God, and David spoke the psalms. In the Hebrew language Barfield hears the origin of the relationship of the heart with God, and the origin of everything, for that matter. And he has a few words about the origin of language, because he sees an active role in language of creating the human mind and therefore (remember part I) in creating the world:

p.123 “Speech did not arise as the attempt of man to imitate, master, or explain ‘nature’; for speech and nature came into being along with one another. [Remember Part 1: Nature did not exist until a mind existed that could step outside of it, and define it.] Strictly speaking, only idolators can raise the question of the ‘origin of language’. For anyone else to do so is like asking for the origin of origin. Roots are the echo of nature herself sounding in man. Or rather, they are the echo of what once sounded and fashioned in both of them at the same time.”

Barfield sees significance in the fact that Hebrew was written with consonants but not vowels, and proposes that these different kinds of sounds embody the coming together of mind and body itself (!):

p.124 “[T]he consonantal element in language [may hold] vestiges of those forces which brought into being the external structure of nature, including the body of man; and, in the original vowel-sounds, the expression of that inner life of feeling and memory which constitutes his soul. It is the two together which have made possible, by first physically and then verbally embodying it, his personal intelligence. … Suffice it to say that the Semitic languages seem to point us back to the old unity of man and nature, through the shapes of their sounds.”

So is the creation of language by the combination of vowels with consonants something like when God breathed on Adam and he became a living soul? And so it makes sense that everything was created by a word, spoken by God, that is, the Word of God:

p.125 “[T]he Jewish doctrine of the Word of God, which was at the same time the source of the phenomenal world and the incarnation of wisdom in man, is still clearly apparent in the Book of Proverbs and in the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of Solomon. … All things came into being through the Word. This teaching of the creative Word, this last testimony to a creation which was not a mere creation of idols, and to an evolution which was not a mere evolution of idols, is one which Christian thought, thanks to the opening verses of St. John’s gospel, has never been able entirely to ignore, though it has by now come near to doing so.”

In that opening passage of the Gospel of John, this Rabbi from first-century Palestine was placed back at the moment of creation. He was there, as the Word of God and the Wisdom of the Almighty. The words of Jesus recounted in that gospel show him participating (to use Barfield's favorite word) in/with YHWH (not sure what is the right preposition to use here!):

p.169-170 “In the heart of that nation, whose whole impulse it had been to eliminate original participation, a man was born who simultaneously identified himself with, and carefully distinguished himself from, the Creator of the world – whom he called the Father. On the one hand: ‘I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me,’ etc. On the other: ‘I and the Father are one,’ etc. In one man the inwardness of the Divine Name had been fully realized; the final participation, whereby man’s Creator speaks from within man himself, had been accomplished. The Word had been made flesh.”

The words of Jesus, and especially the parables of Jesus, are saturated with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures but also with deductions about God's nature from the natural world itself. Barfield points out how an explicit parallel is drawn in Mark between the Parable of the Sower and Isaiah 6, which shows Israel herself beset with idols and darkened in knowledge. Barfield points out that the language is similar to Psalm 135 and many of the other recitations that would be on everyone's mind, about how those who make idols become like them. These words are multi-dimensional and have not yet been exhausted in meaning. As Peter proclaimed, these are the Words of Life:

p.175-176 “Clearly [Jesus’s] whole diction was saturated with recollections of this nature [quotes of the Old Testament], even when no precise allusion can be fixed. The New Testament is, in a sense, latent in the language of the Old. ... It will be clear that, in order to understand the enigmatic words which, in the Synoptic Gospels, are interposed between the parable of the Sower and its interpretation, we must hear sounding through them as an overtone both the voice of the prophet Isaiah and the familiar voice of the Psalmist inveighing against graven images. We cannot do otherwise than to read them as alluding to idolatry.” (And I note that Paul makes frequent multi-dimensional connections to idolatry, for example, in Romans and 1 Corinthians.)

Jesus' parables have a natural feel about them, not just in content, but in their very nature. The kingdom is a generous, giving, growing thing that is alive because its king is the author of life. This king wants the world to be set right, but his way of doing that is very counter-intuitive to our darkened imaginations: he comes as a servant, as the loser of the Darwinian struggle and the one who is emptied of all life. Yet this is the seed, buried, from which life will come. These parables are as powerful as sunlight:

p.174 "[In the parables about the kingdom:] Our deep-rooted feeling for the goodness of justice and equity has to be outraged, because we are being beckoned towards a position directly opposite to the usual one; because we are invited to see the earth, for a moment at all events, rather as it must look from the sun; to experience the world of man as the object of a huge, positive outpouring of love, in the flood of whose radiance such trifles as merit and recompense are mere irrelevancies.”

When our incomplete theologies actually line up with the kingdom proclaimed in these parables, then they reflect a counter-intuitive but blazing light, communicated through the images and words that we summarize as the Trinity:

p.165-166 “In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity the Logos, or Word, is one of three Persons. The conception of a threefold nature in the Godhead is not, however, peculiar to Christianity. It is to be found also in oriental religions and is perhaps the formal principle underlying the whole complicated organism of Greek mythology. It is the depth of all theology. What is peculiar to Christianity is the nexus which that acknowledges between the Second Person of the Trinity and a certain historical event in time. For the Christian, accordingly, religion can never be simply the direct relation between his individual soul and the eternal Trinity. As long as we ourselves are occupying a standpoint in time, so long, interposed between the First and Third Persons, all history, in a manner, lies.”

“Not to realize to the uttermost the otherness of God from ourselves is to deny the Father. But equally, not to strive to realize the sameness – to renege from the Supreme Identity – is to deny the Holy Spirit.”

Barfield slowly came to Christianity because he found in the incarnate God the timeless living in time, the original paradox that is the unimaginable inspiration to the imagination. To Barfield, this fit deeply, down to the nature of thought and language itself, as the Word of God spoken into history.

Christians are called to put things together like Jesus put things together: old and new Testaments, Greek and Hebrew thought, nature and revelation. We are called to live lives of poetry and participation. The rest of this series is Barfield's ideas about how precisely we are to do that, in the light of his focus on mind, word, and language.

[Forward to Part 6]

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