I very much enjoyed this conversation with Paul VanderKlay, talking about Owen Barfield, CS Lewis, Christianity then and now…
I very much enjoyed this conversation with Paul VanderKlay, talking about Owen Barfield, CS Lewis, Christianity then and now…
This article was published in the Church Times. Here’s an excerpt.
In short, modern myths celebrate what is proscribed in a secular age. The secret of their success is appealing to an inner awareness of energies that are not material. Further, the stories suggest that we can learn to relate to this dynamism, and not simply try to control it. They alert us to a wisdom that is fundamental in a religious world-view. Spirit, the supernatural, and powers such as love are cosmic and potent.
Even to the casual consumer, popular myths foster religious feeling and a taste for spiritual knowledge. They are potentially revolutionary. As another Inkling, Owen Barfield, put it: the cinema screen and the page of a book can become “an entirely new window” through which to see the world — although, in truth, the window has been there all along.
Anxiety about the natural world is high and with good reason. Surprisingly, perhaps, the earliest days of Christianity in the British Isles have something vital to teach us.
In this new episode of The Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues, Rupert Sheldrake and I take a lead from a wonderful new book, The Naked Hermit: A Journey Into the Heart of Celtic Britain, by Nick Mayhew-Smith.
It makes several arresting claims. For example, the early missionaries, before the Synod of Whitby, engaged in a deep dialogue with the indigenous druids and pagans of these islands to forge a new engagement with the natural world under its Creator-God. They realised that in dark caves, icy waters, mountaintops and sacred groves, the divine could be found and that a lost paradise was scarcely a touch away.
So what has this Celtic vision of life in all its fullness got to teach us today? Could Christianity regain the sense that nature shares the yearning for God? Might this ancient vision become a crucial resource for a time facing environmental degradation and possible collapse?
The biopic, Tolkien, opens this weekend. It doesn’t look like it gets to what I think was a key inspiration for the great author, namely the thought of his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. I’d wager that The Lord of the Rings would never have been all that it is without Barfield’s genius.
Three ways to contemplate that life may be bigger than death. (They’re not proofs but hinting analogies which Plato argued have an advantage over proofs: they can expand your sense of reality whilst indicating their truths, rather than just dotting i’s in the reality you already know.)
1. No scientist would write an equation unless maths had power. No composer would write music unless sound held harmony. No painter would paint a picture unless colour had mood. No poet would pen a poem unless words had soul. No person could live a life unless life held meaning.
2. Even though the child wears the parent out, maybe leaves them hateful & desolate, there’s tomorrow. They love again. A good enough parent & child find that love survives it all. So maybe parental reality echoes cosmic reality: nothing, in fact, separates us from life and love.
3. Consider: Cold is a lack of heat, but heat is not a lack of cold. Asymmetry. So, if life is to death as heat is to cold, which makes sense as life is akin to heat, then life seems prior to death. Life is the ground zero, and the mystery is how death arose, that lack of life.
In paradise, the Cross is explained to Dante in a way not heard in churches. It’s not how God restores life, but rather was required by human notions of justice – penalty, payment, etc. It was not for God’s sake, a nonsensical notion, God being God, but for the sake of human myopic sight.
But with divine sight, it’s possible to see another dynamic entirely. It’s not the Cross that saves, but the incarnation. It fords the gap by rejoining humanity and divinity. It’s a renewal of human potential, enabling us again to participate in divine life, will, sight, love.
Divine grace empowers, not redeems, Dante sees. We can align with it to release innate capacities, rising not because we’re Christian but because we’re human. In high heaven, the eagle is the emblem for this. The bird was mythically said to see God, as is humanity’s natural joy.
Uncertainties in life are generally felt to be something to reduce, if not cut out. People try to ease their personal doubts and worries, business leaders dislike uncertainty and, perhaps partly in response, politicians seem increasingly inclined just straightforwardly to deny their unknowns.
And yet, at the same time, it’s not hard to feel this state of being sure and banishing doubt is false and deluded.
The Christian story that shapes the few weeks of Lent and the run up to Easter could be subtitled “a tale of doubt”. The disciples who were following Jesus variously panic, flee, and collapse in confusion because they’ve no idea what’s going on. Jesus himself, pinned to the wretched cross, cries out in desolation.
And yet, it’s somehow become a story of new life and discovery, which raises a question. How can such extreme uncertainty lead to what Jesus also called “life in all its fulness”? What changed for his followers? What might that have to show us now?
There’s one figure in the story that I’ve always liked. He’s Doubting Thomas.
I like him partly because my own feelings about Christianity are pretty ambivalent. I was once a clergyman in the Church of England, but left, not only because I grew frustrated with the church, though I did; but also because I feel Christianity, at least as I’ve known it, has lost touch with something essential.
It seems to me either to overstress rather narrow beliefs about Jesus, or miracles, or the resurrection; or to downplay them, so that it becomes little more than a useful but unimaginative call to love others and say prayers.
The upshot is that I feel nervous if I’m called a Christian. It feels like being boxed in. But I can also see that buried within Christianity lies a perennial wisdom about life that can be nothing short of transformative. But what is it, and how might it work? Well, take the figure of Thomas.
There’s a story about him that begins to illuminate things. It comes when Jesus is telling the disciples that he knows something calamitous is about to happen to him, though he also tells them not to let their hearts be troubled. It’s the path he must follow.
Needless to say, this does not comfort them. And Thomas is the one who interjects. “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says. “How can we know the way?”
Thomas is fearful and exasperated. You can feel his confusion, even anger, at where he’s found himself and what’s seemingly about to happen. And let’s stay here for a moment. Let’s resist any standard response, such as that resurrection will bring a good end to the story, to understand something about his anxiety.
I’ve come to feel that doing so is actually crucial, that the experience of being lost, frightened and not knowing the way is fundamental to any truly transformative expansion of life.
I actually learnt this, first, from the ancient Greek philosophers. When I left the church, I turned to writers like Plato, seeking an account of meaning that might make up for what I’d lost. Their central figure is Socrates, and what he talked about when he was alive was being certain that he was uncertain about lots if not most things.
He made doubt a way of life, not because he wanted to deny or avoid worries and fears. Rather, he saw that doing so connects us with something basic in our humanity. We are the “in between” creature, he said. We’re not like other creatures, so far as we can tell, who seem content when life stays the same, and like it best when nothing much changes.
We humans want more. We know that there’s lots we don’t know, and we want to find out about it. It fires a yearning about ourselves, others, life, the cosmos, God.
It means that not knowing is a crucial, first step to seeing more and going deeper into life. Becoming lost, even frightened, can be necessary.
Socrates realised that not knowing the way, tolerating the doubt, is the route to a turning point. He forged an approach to life that involved going around asking all sorts of apparently simple questions that caused people to stumble and doubt but also opened up new possibilities, and that’s why he became the pivotal figure in western philosophy.
His approach was close to another way that people grappled with uncertainty at the time, too. I’m thinking of the so-called mystery religions that boomed across the Greek and then Roman empire, including Britain.
They were initiation rites that, over the course of a few days, took participants through a disorientating experience of being plunged quite literally into darkness and shadows. They then emerged on the other side, more commonly than not, declaring that what they’d undergone had changed everything. People said they could now live happily and die with hope.
The Roman philosopher, Plutarch, gives us an enticing glimpse into what the experience was like. He says: “Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walkings in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible things, panic and shivering and sweat, and bewilderment.”
The initiate became disorientated. They suffered. But after that – or rather, through it – there came a transformation. Plutarch continues: “And then some wonderful light comes to meet you… and there the initiate, perfect by now, set free and loose from all bondage.”
Early Christianity became, in part, another immersive, experiential mystery religion. “I tell you a mystery,” writes Saint Paul. But it had an edge, too.
It had an approach that was much more accessible to the less educated and so, with Christianity, the freedom to live happily and die with hope could spread – at first, during the second and third centuries, slowly, often through the underclasses, until in the fourth century, when it went mainstream.
The stories and sayings that Christianity told, many of them gathered together in what we now call the gospels, must have had a big part in that. They promised that what the disciples had experienced, you could experience, too. Which takes us back to the figure of Thomas.
There’s a second big moment in his story when he calls out in exasperation. This time it comes after the resurrection, though what I like about Thomas is that much as I haven’t seen an astonishing vision of Jesus walking again, neither did he. The story goes that he missed the occasion when it happened.
The other disciples told him about it, and that’s when he expresses his frustration once more. “Unless I touch Jesus’s wounds, I will not believe,” he said.
A week later, Jesus appears again. This time Thomas is there and he invites him to do precisely that, adding, “Do not doubt but believe.” Oddly enough though, Thomas doesn’t touch the wounds. Instead, he spontaneously exclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Now this is a different moment. It’s as if his doubt wasn’t resolved but was entirely eclipsed. It wasn’t that he got his empirical confirmation and irrefutable proof. He’d actually seen something far more than he’d expected, and I think he was able suddenly to see it because he’d had this period of doubt.
My sense is that the struggle with not knowing had led him, finally, to ask questions of himself. What was he missing? Was the problem to do with him? Did he need to perceive life entirely differently?
And then, it clicked. There was more to life than he knew. Way more.
Thomas had another nickname and my guess is that it’s his grappling and questioning that earned it for him. He was also called Didymus, or “the Twin”, and the implication is that he was seen to have become a spiritual brother to Jesus, a twin, because he not only believed in Jesus, but more importantly sought to know God as Jesus did – through uncertainty, doubt, even suffering.
He made the discovery not by seeing miracles, or having visions, or by assertions of faith, but because at the end of his tether, when he was empty, another side of life came into view, though in truth it had been there all along.
After Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God”, Jesus replies. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” That’s right. You have to undergo this experience to get it. Seeing is believing, in fact, though seeing more in this interior way, with the mind’s eye.
For myself, I feel that I went on something of a parallel journey when I went into psychotherapy. After I left the church, and had found something in ancient philosophy, I realised I needed a modern way to have an experience that was the equivalent of meeting Socrates. I found it with my therapist who kept asking me often simple but penetrating and awkward questions.
It was hard. I got exasperated and angry. I also had pretty long periods of time when I felt lost, and became frightened. When would it end? How long would it take?
But the talking cure is unlike other more schematic, behavioural therapies. It starts from the premise that we are the in between creature. We do not know, particularly at first, what’s going on – though psychotherapy also holds a kind of trust, backed up by experience, that there’s a path to be found and it can be followed.
I managed to hold on and work it through, and I can say it changed my life. It also gave me a different perception of Christianity. I now no longer see it as just a set of beliefs, or a moral system, or about being part of a church – though it may secondarily involve those things. Rather, for me, it’s about a revolution of perception – seeing life radically differently by embracing a path that takes you to an edge that’s actually an horizon.
What’s struck me, too, is that the path of doubt seems to be becoming more and more popular in the modern world. There’s therapy, of course. And people also learn to meditate, which is another very good way of calling yourself into question, by trying to sit still.
Or take the phenomenon of pilgrimage. It’s interesting because it’s sort of religious, but also not religious.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people across Europe are now giving up their creature comforts, bearing bloody feet and shared dormitories, to walk to places like Santiago di Compostela. They’re on the Camino, or “way” as it’s called, though just why is often not that clear to those involved.
There may be a sense that something in their lives needs facing, perhaps a breakup or a death. But by stepping out, into the unknown, they find answers that they come to see just couldn’t be found any other way. The pilgrimage facilitates that.
What is found through these different means can be explicitly religious, of course. That was the case with Thomas and the ancient philosophers felt that they gained a vision of God, too. I like the way they talk about it.
There’s Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who wrote a book called Meditations that’s still in print today. He urged his readers by saying, “Dig within; for within you lies the fountain of good, and it can always be gushing forth if only you always dig.”
Alternatively, the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who was a contemporary of Paul wrote: “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.”
I suspect that Paul shared this understanding. He came to call it “dying every day” – the practice of loosening yourself from the hopes and fears that you cling to, so as to make space for this more. It’s an inner shift of attitude, almost a self-sacrifice, to help a slow realignment with the divine.
Thomas has much to teach us. But his doubt needs a refresh. It’s not about proof, but what the experience itself can bring about. By refocusing inwardly, to an edge of awareness, something new appears. So I’d say undergo the uncertainty and the mystery, when the moments arise, and life will brilliantly grow. That’s the way.
I’m making some short films to get the ideas of Owen Barfield circulating in the run-up to the publication of my book, A Secret History of Christianity.
They cover questions including who was Owen Barfield, why Christianity is failing, how to save the planet, why we take photos, and lots more.
Here’s a couple.
It’s been noted that the human experience of life has changed over time, and that during an “axial age”, in the middle of the first millennium BCE, a consciousness that is akin to our own first began to emerge. It’s why, in the west, we feel that philosophy began with figures like Socrates who lived then.
So what are the features of this consciousness, what preceded it, and how has it evolved in the centuries since, particularly in the modern period during which it may have been shifting again?
This lecture I recently gave at the Weekend University uses the ideas of Owen Barfield to explore how the human experience has changed over time, and how this can account for the birth of philosophy, as we tend to think of it, and the emergence of psychotherapy in the 20th century.