This article is published in The Friend, the Quaker magazine this week.
I was on holiday with friends in a sunny corner of Cornwall, when one of them confessed she was engaged in a personal enquiry. She had decided to ask each of us about our image of God.
It was a good idea. As a group we occupied many positions along the religious spectrum from atheist to evangelical; “spiritual but not religious” to professional Anglican clergyman. She received a range of replies, from “Jesus” to “love” to “Spirit.” The atheist said, “Patriarch in the sky”. You can be an atheist and still have a powerful image of God.
It set me thinking. I have always been culturally Christian. But even when I was going to church, I never had the experience of knowing Jesus as a companion; nor had much sense of a personal God to whom I could pray, “Our Father”.
However, when my friend asked me for my image of God, I was able to give a clear answer. I’ve been greatly helped over the years by three things.
First is silence. I didn’t know how to practice silence, though I’d repeatedly tried, until I came across a group of Buddhists who unfolded the way. I signed up for their three year mindfulness course. Step by step, we were shown how to sit; how to breathe; how to use breathing or noise as a support; how not to worry when it seemed not to be working because noticing it’s not working is precisely the way.
The course was a revelation. I saw that silence is not something for the spiritually exceptional. Like learning to ride a bike, there’s a bit of know-how, a bit of practicing with stabilisers, and then it becomes something you can use to go places. I’d never have guessed.
That said, silence of itself wasn’t enough. The second thing that came to my aid was psychotherapy.
In large part, this was about understanding my inner life. Personally, I don’t think I could have gained enough insight by meditation alone. I needed my therapist to keep me at it, to challenge me, and to hold a different psychic space into which I could gradually move.
However, something else came with therapy. My experience of time massively expanded. I knew about clock time, as everyone does. I also had experiences of “flow time”, when reading or working: the sense of being lost in an activity that’s absorbing. But therapy added other types.
Spiritually speaking, the one that made a difference is what I believe the mystics call eternity. It’s the experience in time of also being outside of time. To me, it feels a bit like the hour or two before sunrise. There’s a pause. The sky is no longer dark, but neither is there daylight. And yet the sun is there, holding the horizon. It’s a holding that mirrors the eternal.
In therapy, I experienced it with the realisation that there’s a part of life that’s timeless. What happened 50, 60, 70 years ago is, at this level of being, quite as present as what happened earlier today or just now. The passage of life, like the passage of time, is the moving image of eternity, to borrow Plato’s tremendous expression. It’s possible to sense that eternity as fully as the clock ticking.
This brings me to the third thing that has helped me. It has specifically to do with Christianity.
To cut to the chase, I started reading Owen Barfield. He was one of the Inklings, the famous Oxford group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They said that he was the one with the greatest ideas, and he said he was like a hedgehog, as opposed to a fox: he had one key idea that shaped his entire life.
The idea is that human consciousness changes. The experience of being human enjoyed by our distant ancestors is very different from our own. Roughly speaking, if they knew life predominantly from the outside in, we know it predominantly from the inside out. Interiority has become our default.
Take a moment in The Iliad, when Achilles becomes angry with Agamemnon once again. He is about to strike the king, only he stops in his tracks. What’s noticeable about the moment for is now is that he doesn’t stop because he changes his mind and thinks the wiser. He does so because the goddess Athena appears. She draws back his head and prevents him. What we might have felt as conscience or concern from the inside out, he felt as the intervention of a god from the outside in.
Barfield noticed this shift time and again, so that a question became irresistible. What has happened between then and now to bring the change about? We can be alone, personally responsible, existentially free in a way that our ancestors couldn’t. Every moment of their lives had to be negotiated with their kin, ancestors and gods. So when did our experiences of conscience, free will, inner life and individuality definitively form?
He studied myths and stories, literature and texts across different cultures and times and reached an arresting conclusion. In the West, at least, the experience of life has turned like a tide. From the older outer sense there has been a reversal to our inner sense of things. Roughly speaking, the moment when that turnaround occurred was the moment when Christianity emerged.
Barfield realised that Jesus is a pivotal figure in the West, whether you’re a Christian or not, because his life became a fulcrum of consciousness. It’s why he is remembered as being preoccupied with what comes out of a person, and not with what goes into someone, as the pharisees and priests were. It’s why he advises people to pray in secret. It’s why he became an observant psychologist. It’s also why his followers began to sense that in Jesus’s inner life – his “I am” – could be detected the inner life of God, the divine I AM.
There’s much more that can to be said about this transition and what it means for Christianity. But Barfield’s work has been a third revelation to me, which I’ve written about in my new book. I think it really matters.
When it comes to my old problem as a cradle Christian who never really knew Jesus or a personal God, it’s come as a relief. I now think of Jesus as a bit like Roger Bannister who was the first to break the 4-minute mile, which now any serious runner can do: Jesus constellated the new consciousness and so catalysed the same potential for us all.
That means something further. I don’t have to worry about whether I experience God as Father. It doesn’t matter if I don’t call on a divine friend. Added to the felt experiences gained in silence and in psychotherapy, Barfield’s work has given me an intellectual basis from which to trust the felt sense of God that can be found within; the divine that is as still as the moment before sunrise, that is as sure as eternity, is also as spirited as my interiority.
On the holiday, when my friend asked me about my image of God, I was able to answer. “A felt sense of presence,” I said.