The Evolution of Religion with Rupert Sheldrake

The origins of religion lie deep in the story of human evolution. But as Rupert Sheldrake and I discuss in this new episode of The Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, the scientific study of our encounter with other worlds is changing.

It has been proposed that humans believe in gods because punishing presences keep individuals in check, but that’s discredited. New research is turning back to an older idea that our ancestors developed the ability to enter altered states.

It’s fascinating partly because new evidence puts spiritual questing in the driving seat of human evolution. It also takes us back to reflections made by Darwin that qualities like beauty are active right across the animal kingdom.

The many previous discussions between myself and Rupert Sheldrake can be found on youtube, streamed, Spotify, iHeartRadio, as a playlist on SoundCloud, and on iTunes.

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Temenos Academy talk

My talk at the Temenos Academy, The Inkling Owen Barfield, Jesus, and the Evolution of Consciousness, on 1st October is now online.

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Owen A Barfield on Owen Barfield

It was a joy that Owen Barfield’s grandson, Owen A Barfield, who has done so much to champion his grandfather’s work, spoke at the book launch of A Secret History of Christianity.

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I saw that silence…

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.

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Mere Christianity by Owen Barfield

If Owen Barfield had written a Mere Christianity, like his “oppositional friend” C.S. Lewis, this is what he might have said.

Where Lewis started with morality, Barfield would start with vision. Where Lewis addresses a flawed humanity, Barfield would invite us to seek participation in divine life.

This was a talk I gave at Southwark Cathedral on 27th September 2019 in which I tried to present Barfield’s vision of the past, present and future of Christianity, as I’ve fleshed it out in my book, A Secret History of Christianity.

I believe that Christianity is in existential crisis, at least in the west, so the talk is also a chance to re-imagine what Christianity might mean from the roots up. In a nutshell, it’s a re-emerging of the mystical tradition.

The talk begins 1000 years and more before Jesus to understand how the time was right when he was born. It looks at his teaching in parables as well as the meaning of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. It asks what it might mean consciously to live in the kingdom today and how that relates to the great issues of our times, from ecological collapse to mental ill-health and a new kind of economy.

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Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis

This article was written for The Church of England Newspaper, published on 26th Sept 2019 as “Uncovering the last Inkling”.

Everyone has heard of C.S. Lewis. Not many have heard of Owen Barfield. However, Lewis would not have become the famous author and apologist without the man he called his “oppositional friend”. I have found reading Barfield to be a transformative experience, too.

He was born 20 days before Lewis during the last years of the Victorian era, in 1898. He died several decades after Lewis, in 1997. They met as undergraduates in Oxford and became founding members of the fabled circle known as The Inklings, alongside J.R.R. Tolkien.

At first, Oxford life was not happy for Barfield. He became acutely depressed. In a letter to a friend, he described feeling as if he were falling in on himself “like an ingrowing toe-nail”. He felt suicidal. He came to see that his malaise arose from “the caged materialism of the age”, but a way out of the narrowness presented itself in poetry.

He woke up to the vitality and life conveyed in the words of a poem, as well as other inspired works. He believed that this “secret life” is an imaginative power that reveals nothing less than God’s presence in the world. The Word who became flesh is active in the words we speak, and we can sense it too, if we develop the ears to hear.

For example, the parables of Jesus are not primarily moral tales about how to behave well, Barfield argued. For one thing, if read like that, many of them seem amoral if not immoral. Instead, they are akin to disturbing allegories and strange stories. If we listen to them aright, they imaginatively jolt us out of our suppositions and open our hearts and minds to receive what Jesus called “life in all its fulness”.

The way of flowing images is a way of knowledge as much as rational proof and argument, Barfield said. Lewis had yet to become a Christian and disagreed. They launched into a series of embattled discussions that they called their “Great War”. Where Barfield noticed qualities of God’s spirit echoing in his soul as he read poetry and parables, Lewis held that they were meaningful insofar as they add colour to life. Barfield continued: the way out of the caged materialism of the age is not by finding the argument that proves the existence of God. It is to experience a “felt change of consciousness”. It is to be converted.

The word “felt” in that quote was, in fact, suggested by Lewis after his conversion in 1931. It suggests how Barfield’s insights lie behind his realisation that the historical life of Jesus is a true myth. It’s the product of a change of mind that requires an awakened sense. It can see that within what we call literal events lies a spiritual reality that is in communion with God. Jesus showed it. We can know it.

Little wonder that Lewis dedicated the book he published soon after his conversion, The Allegory of Love, to Barfield, calling him “Wisest and Best of My Unofficial Teachers”. When he wrote the Narnia stories, Lewis memorialised the friendship again. The lead character, Lucy, is named after Barfield’s daughter, to whom Lewis was a godfather.

That said, differences between the two remained. They revolved around Barfield’s profound appreciation of the German philosopher and mystic, Rudolf Steiner. He is known in his native Germany because of his work on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but prompts suspicion in the English-speaking world. Lewis shared the dislike. He only once wrote positively about Steiner, in The Abolition of Man: “I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration – that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed.”

That “something” is a trained imagination which can become a faculty of inspiration and revelation. My sense is that Barfield’s understanding of it shaped Lewis’s work through and through. For example, Lewis makes even more sense when you know about Barfield’s thesis that human beings have lost touch with an experience of the life of God that was once enjoyed by our distant ancestors. Lewis’s notion of “joy” is a distant memory of this older participation. It prompts a desire for a renewed awareness of God in the future.

Lewis felt this would require the radical, even catastrophic, death and rebirth of humanity. Barfield felt we could begin to know it directly now. The disciples did so with the eyes that could see and ears that could hear the resurrected Jesus. Barfield did, too, when he became aware not only of his own inner life but “the inside of the whole world”, as he put it. For myself, I believe Barfield wrote about a way to know the kingdom of God that is already within us. He has crucial insights both for Christianity today and for escaping from the caged materialism that traps us.

Mark Vernon’s new book tells the story of Christianity based on Barfield’s ideas. It is called, A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling and the Evolution of Consciousness (John Hunt Publishing).

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William Blake’s therapy for the soul

This article was written for The Idler.

The new William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is tremendous. It features three hundred of his works, any of which on their own would command a room. Together they present an extraordinary energy.

It’s a rare chance to be immersed in the images of the prophet and poet, and could hardly be more timely as Britain convulses over the trauma of Brexit. Blake is arguably the greatest modern mystic these islands have produced. The show gives tangible form to his spiritual sight. I feel like we need it. But what is he telling us in 2019?

Blake is well known for being a commercial failure in life. One section of the new show reconstructs an exhibition that he put on in 1809 when he felt he might be recognised by his peers. It was a flop. He was shattered.

But I like to think that after the disappointment, he realised once more that his vocation was to live in the turbulent hell of London, supported by a few patrons and aided by his wife, Catherine. This was the crucible within which he must strive to bring heaven to earth; to manifest his vision in watercolour and ink.

He was in the right place because unlike the successful artists of his day, whom he decried as flatterers and sycophants, he was free. He could make the breathtaking illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy; the vivid plates to accompany Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; his now most famous single work, Ancient of Days.

So his message is freedom and the vision it allows. But still, it’s a confusing communication because his freedom is so unlike the freedom that’s routinely pursued today.

Ask people now what liberty means and they might say freedom to determine your own laws or make your own choices. But Blake’s freedom is not at root the liberty to do this or that. It’s founded first on something more substantial: the glorious capacity to see “a World in a Grain of Sand”; “Heaven in a Wild Flower”. It’s a liberty based upon perception. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” he remarked.

The doors of perception are cleansed by the sight that is found and fostered in the struggles of life. They put you between heaven and hell, innocence and experience, eternity and time, friendship and opposition, nature and the supernatural, vision and labour. He embraced this zone because contraries are liberating. They lift the mind. They refuse to leave you settled and still. Sometimes exhausting, it’s also thrilling.

Above all, such opposites facilitate the imagination. They power an ability to see through surface appearances. They glimpse the fuller reality of which the mundane world is a reflection or echo. “Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence,” he explained.

His near contemporary and fellow romantic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, called it “polarity”. He recognised that the dynamism of life arises out of the way things hold together when they are in the correct tension. Much as electricity is produced when a wire passes through a magnetic field strung between north and south, we are productive when we traverse the lines of force polarity creates. The trick is to learn how to be in the flow.

It’s for this reason that Blake railed against “single vision and Newton’s sleep”. He believed that the scientific worldview that was emerging in his day was losing sight of one pole of existence.

It would insist all is material, instead of material and spiritual. It would claim to have grasped nature in general laws, and lose touch with the infinite variety of her manifold instances. It would become so enamoured with its empirical measurements that it would deny the measureless, and so build “dark Satanic Mills” and bind people in “mind forged manacles”. He wasn’t wrong.

The Tate exhibition is a chance to feel the fuller energy. I’d advise ignoring the tendency amongst some critics to say Blake is unfathomable or incomprehensible. Rather, allow yourself just to dwell in the show.

Enjoy the loveliness of his portrayal of a friendship. Feel the fear embodied in the figures bound in chains. Let your mind rise with angels as their feet leave the ground. Experience the agony of the traumatic moments from Biblical stories and myths. Feel his dark clouds, starry vistas, lithe figures.

Another Romantic writer, Owen Barfield, discovered how to access this life in poetry. He realised that the trick is not immediately to try to explain a poem but to let the words work on you. Let them speak as your imagination runs. There’s no right or wrong; no mere fantasy. Amplify any feelings and you discover that the words have soul. “I kept my attention on the experience itself and was not attracted by the rhetorical explanations which led away from it,” Barfield says.

What’s experienced is the inner power of the art. If it’s submitted to with fewer preconceptions, it can prepare the mind for new sights. The imagination is reignited. Feeling is charged. It’s this thrill that Blake brings and why he inspires. He offers a therapy for the soul that restores its capacity for vision.

That said, reason has a part, too. It can be bought into play when it has something to work with. Having made contact with reality afresh via the imagination, reason can sketch its maps and offer its links. It can serve to deepen, discern, direct.

The point is that reasoning becomes unfree when it believes it is sovereign; when it forgets what Einstein caught in his remark about imagination being more important than knowledge: imagination is in touch with the world, whereas reason abstracts from it. The prison of reason alone is what Blake famously represents in his images of Urizen, Newton and the Ancient of Days. They assume that all they have is the measuring rod and compass.

The same mistake is made by the overbearing empiricism and reductionism of our times. The intellectuals who judge everything by logic and treat the cosmos as a machine have forgotten that they can only think because the world already contains intelligence. They can only understand because there is wisdom.

“There is no natural religion,” Blake proclaims in one of the books on display at Tate Britain. He means that spiritual life exceeds what can be captured by the natural sciences. It feeds the religious impulse because it spills in from the divine life in which our lives are embedded.

Blake believed he had a mission. It was to help his fellows regain spiritual sight. When feeling as well as reason, intuition as well as sensing, imagination as well as deduction are operative, it’s not actually that hard to find. Stay with the contraries. Stay with the images.

“I give you a golden thread, Only wind it into a ball, It will let you in at Heaven’s Gate Built in Jerusalem’s Wall,” Blake promised. This exhibition is a chance to take him up on it.

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BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief on God

I was a panelist for the latest edition of the long-standing BBC Radio 4 religious discussion programme, Beyond Belief. We discussed the nature of God.

“God is a presence that runs in and through all things that’s quite quiet and still but there’s something very powerful and strong in that presence and stillness.”

“You can wake up to the inside of the whole world and not just your own inside.”

Listen online here.

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Talk at Watkins Books online

What is the meaning of the disenchantment of our age? Is the ego a clue to a way forward, not a hindrance? What might the next steps in the evolution of human consciousness look like?

These questions, and more, were explored by Owen Barfield. He was a member of the famous Oxford literary group, the Inklings, and the one whom C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were said to have had the most innovative ideas.

In this talk, drawing from his new book A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness, I outline Owen Barfield’s ideas and what they tell us about ancient philosophy, mystical Christianity and our spiritual flourishing today.

Barfield studied how the meaning of words changes over time, and saw that they were fossils of consciousness. The evolving human perception of ourselves, others, nature, the cosmos and the gods can therefore be traced and, moreover, its meaning understood.

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A Secret History of Christianity out today!

A Secret History of Christianity seems to have had a good first day in the world. I hope it opens up the genius insights of Owen Barfield for readers.

I’ve also written an article published in The Tablet outlining his take on Christianity.

And there’s a discussion with Jules Evans on the Church Times podcast about the need to rediscover the mystical side of faith which Barfield helped me do.

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