Mystics of the Imagination

Does consciousness evolve and, if so, in what way and with what implications for our understanding of, say, a religious tradition’s development over time? A tradition that, in this case, is, at least, from a Western’ perspective, atrophying? Either retreating to the redoubt of a cognitively dissonant ‘fundamentalism’ or flattened out to a thin liberal version of the secular with morally ‘uplifting’ stories attached. Can it yet be something other than these two alternatives and can a re-imagination through the lens of an evolution of consciousness help?

Owen Barfield thought it could. Barfield was one of the Inklings that remarkable group of Christian intellectuals and authors of whom C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien were the most famous members. They sought to renew a living sense of Christian tradition that would stand the test of its times and for whom the critical keys were rigorous thought and compelling imagination.

Barfield’s discovery was that our collective experience of life changes over time, the way our consciousness processes the reality we behold changes significantly over history. The first example of this, in the West, for Barfield was when we moved from myth to logos in the middle of the first millennium BCE. It did this in three phases. The first, he called ‘original participation’ where inner and outer life is barely differentiated and the boundary between self and other is exceptionally fluid. You live as a flow in a particular space where everything within and around is animated with presence and forces into which you are woven. Your life is collective. The second phase is what he called ‘withdrawal of participation’ where a realization of separation and even isolation emerges and an inner life, relatively felt as one’s own, comes into being. This is both liberating and troubling at the same time – new questions are born, new answers sought – as one becomes responsible for this new ‘self’ as it relates to that which is ‘other’. The third phase, which Barfield called, ‘reciprocal participation’ is a renewed negotiation between self and other, individual and cosmos, person and God.

This has not happened once but is a recurring pattern thought Barfield – the new reciprocity leads to a deepening withdrawal and the emergence of a new reconciling participation.

Barfield’s argument for this process began in philology. Looking at the root meanings and development of words gave you entrance into these shifts in ways of being. Thus, for example, the original meaning of ‘pneuma’ in Greek was ‘wind-spirit’ neither one nor the other, neither outer force nor inner prompting but both as undifferentiated reality. Words were ‘fossils’ giving insight into the morphology of consciousness.

Mark Vernon, in this beautifully written and artfully constructed book, uses Barfield’s key insights and amplifying historical and literary scholarship, to trace the development of Christianity’s two founding traditions – Athens and Jerusalem – articulating how they embarked on similar journeys from original participation to an individualizing break to a new sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. No longer inhabiting a field in which the gods pulled the strings of fate into a world governed by a unitary, ordered universe in which recognizable persons could, in freedom, respond either to Yahweh as person or in law or to the ordering Good or Logos. These two traditions, Vernon argues, merge in Christianity and give birth to a new dispensation, a new reconciling participation, witnessed to and embodied in the person of Christ.

Vernon proceeds to articulate both how Jesus is similar to the teachers of his time and place and yet how he is consistently creative and novel and Christ’s task is to deepen through a renewing inwardness, our ability to live and flourish in a God gifted cosmos, to live in a dynamic freedom within consciousness of God. Jesus did this by transforming the expectation of apocalypse as something that is to come from the outside to a reality, the kingdom of God, that is present and within us now and that invites practices that will help us to navigate its reality, bringing it alive. Such practices included teaching in parables that invite, require a transformation of perspective if they are to be understood though are too often presented as flat bearers of morals and the privatization of prayer that moves towards inward stillness and attentiveness to the God present within.  Vernon wants us to recover a sense of Jesus’ invitation to this mystical life one that transforms us into virtuous, alive human beings.

This transformation developed into the fully fledged Christocentric view of the world that was not itself divine ‘full of gods’ but was a gift of God; and, together with Scripture, could be read as figuring forth divine meanings that operated on many levels. This medieval view of the world was a participatory one where our reality as made after God’s image inwardly met a God gifted cosmos outwardly.

But, this in turn, broke down at the Reformation. The Church outward sign of order was perceived by Luther as corrupt leaving only Scripture as the guarantor of salvation but since scripture had relied for its interpretation on a living tradition now barren, scripture can only be interpreted by its individual reader. The individual is both deepened in their seriousness and yet also disconnected from the world around them. They become an observer of that world and the groundwork is set for the Enlightenment and its rigorous separation of the ‘subjective’ inner world of qualities and the ‘objective’ outer world of quantities. 

Barfield saw that each of these shifts in consciousness bring both their light and their shadows. Luther brought a renewed sense of the human, of individual rights and ultimately, after much conflict, an expectation of tolerance yet as well as a conflicted emphasis on the ‘self’, of me and mine. Science in its wake brought wonders of insight and transformation yet now at the costliness of feeling ourselves ‘above’ nature, ever-moving forward oblivious to the boundaries of the possible, of life. A nature with only a utilitarian meaning.

As we stand thus withdrawn are their signs of a renewing participation?

Barfield, and Vernon following him, finds that there is and they invite us to reconsider the role of imagination in our knowing. Imagination not as fantasy – the assembling or re-assembling of the known as Coleridge called it – but as the faculty through which we explore the world, creating new knowledge that resonates with reality. Coleridge saw this faculty as our participation in the ‘I AM’ of God’s imagining the world into being. This form of imagination and its practice has been recognized by both artists and scientists as essential to revealing what can be known and what, bounded by that, what is. Einstein used it to bring to light his special theory of relativity, Blake to critique his world and its many failings in the light of eternal values. Both recognized that such knowing has its disciplines and essential to this knowing is our ability to enter into it, ever anew, it shows forth a world known only to the participant, not simply the observer. You have to learn to play and dance with reality if it is ever to yield up its secrets and its secrets always lure you on into wider and wider circles of discovery. As with the strange world of quantum mechanics seems to imply the world is continually being birthed in the eye of its conscious beholding.

That brings us full circle to Christianity – as Karl Rahner (quoted by Vernon) noted the Church if it were to survive would have to become a Church of mystics but, as Vernon deftly shows, not mystics who have retreated into a redoubt mumbling a worn out creed but mystics of the imagination re-engaging with a renewed, renewing participation in a living cosmos, where wisdom and knowledge, art and science blend into a new holistic imagining of things that guards what has been gained and drops what has become dysfunctional that seeks to connect the inward life of transformation and the outward life of participation that, in truth, is one life – our consciousness being the inside not only of our selves but of the world. It is what Jesus did with the patterns of thought and experience he was heir to and if we are to ‘imitate’ him, we need to do likewise.


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