In his controversial Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Ken Wilber laments the orthodox Christian view that regards the incarnation of Christ as a solitary, unrepeatable event in the history of humankind. This view, Wilber contends, precludes the possibility of “same level realizations” for the rest of humanity. If no human being apart from Christ has ever been or ever will be endowed with the capacity to reach the divine, then no one else will ever be able to reproduce Christ’s ascent, at least not in this world. “This world,” according to Wilber’s interpretation, “is merely a runway for the real take-off.” Outside of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, there never was and never will be any other unity of the human with the divine, no complete ascent from the shackles of this world, no descent to tear asunder the shackles of one’s fellows. Christianity simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility, “even in theory.”
Perhaps there is no orthodox remedy for the orthodox view that a human being may participate in but never know herself to be one with the divine. There is, perhaps, no path by which a Christian who wishes to be officially regarded as a Christian, may complete the circuit that discloses the oneness of the divine with all that is manifest within it. This has not, however, prevented a scattered but indomitable handful of mystics from trying, nor a handful of visionary theorists, particularly in the last century, from imagining the way toward, if not identity with, then fulfillment in God.
Among these theorists, three stand out as devisers of schemes that, in some ways, seem to look forward to Wilber’s own model, to share much of the spirit of the models of the other two and, most remarkably, to somehow fit, if at times awkwardly, within the confines of the Christian faith. If these theorists, who were by their own accounts Christian in more than name, were ultimately unable to complete the full circuit, there is still ample evidence that their hearts and Wilber’s were all turned toward the same place. It is, in fact, difficult to deny that Wilber’s own model owes much to these so-called “frustrated Ascenders” and their notion that evolution operates with consciousness and direction, that evolution is the divine knowing itself in and through the universe of multiple forms.
Teilhard de Chardin, Nikolai Berdyaev and Owen Barfield were each men of significant erudition and widely varied pursuits. Teilhard, a paleontologist and Jesuit priest, labored in the domains of science and religion (domains that, in his view, concerned themselves with “the pursuit of one and the same object”). Berdyaev, always a colorful character, combined unorthodox political views with an Orthodox faith. Barfield, on the other hand, maintained that, throughout the adult portion of his ninety-nine years, he had only one thing to say.
In spite of a legal career to which he was reluctantly committed, in spite of famous friendships with the likes of C.S. Lewis, and a rich family life to which he was wholeheartedly devoted, Barfield insisted on referring to himself as “a hedgehog.” A fox, he said, understands many things but a hedgehog only one. For Barfield, as for Teilhard and Berdyaev, this one thing was the central tenet of Christianity. It is the, to Barfield, perfectly obvious fact, that the true implications of Christ’s incarnation are yet to be realized, that these implications are, in fact, being realized in every moment through the gradual evolution of human consciousness, a process he called the “long disclosure of God’s being through the collective experience of humanity.”
For Barfield, as for Bardyaev, this flowering of consciousness, this theophany, is to come about through the personalities of individuals and of cultures. The personality, misguided though it may at times be, is not to be dismissed as a petty, pretender god whose fate it is to be subsumed in the being of the one true God. Instead, it is the harbinger of a God-like consciousness that can be realized only through iconoclasm, through the human creativity that echoes the act of Creation. For Barfield, consciousness comes to fruition in our uniqueness, our innovation and in the ways we sometimes hurl and sometimes drag ourselves forward by sharing our own small apocalypses.
Teilhard, no doubt, would have agreed with this proposition but would have added an additional facet to the argument. In Teilhard’s view, there is no aspect of the manifest universe that does not possess some measure of this guiding consciousness. There are, for Teilhard, no emergent properties. There is no possibility that something will suddenly appear on the face of manifestation that was not there below the surface all along. All types of matter, all phenomena, therefore, possess some degree of consciousness even if it is not discernible as such.
On this matter, too, there is a consonance between the views of Teilhard and Barfield, even if it is difficult to make out. According to Barfield, there is and always has been a single, conscious force (“the still barely nascent Christ-impulse”) operant in manifestation. This Christ-impulse is also the Logos, the source of all manifestation and its destination. It is what drives manifestation forward (Eros) and it is the universal law (Telos) according to which it is driven. (As Wilber puts it, “Spirit speaks through the evolutionary process, as the process, itself– self-unfolding, self-enfolding, self-realizing…”) It is not wrong, at any stage of evolution, to call this force consciousness. It is vital, however, to distinguish the stages of the operation of this consciousness, not just by degrees but by kind, by their crucial difference, if not in fundamental substance, then in appearance and functioning. The substance of manifestation is not ultimately separable from how it is experienced (how it experiences itself) and it is with the often starkly contrasting shades of this experience that Barfield’s theory is concerned.
Barfield begins his most comprehensive work, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, by asking the reader to consider the rainbow. Rainbows, though they appear quite present, quite “real,” are easily understood as phenomena resulting from the interaction of light and water in the lower atmosphere. There are, then, no “unseen rainbows.” There is only the play of light and water which we assume to be there even when we are not looking. Barfield invites the reader to carry this mental exercise a step farther. He asks us to regard all apparent objects as actual phenomena. He proposes that there are, in fact, no qualities outside of sensory experience (no unseen colors, no unheard sound, “no unfelt solidity”). What we encounter is merely “the resistance” of the unperceived.
Basic nuclear physics tells us that the source of the stimuli that we interpret as qualities are what Barfield refers to as “particles” or simply as “the unrepresented—“ something “independent of our consciousness” that interacts with our senses in such a way as to produce certain impressions that we interpret as qualities—qualities that we then interpret as belonging to discreet objects that we believe have their own existence as objects whether or not there is a consciousness present to regard them in this way. This belief, according to Barfield, is mistaken.
If we accept “that the particles are there and that they are all that is there,” then we must acknowledge that what we regard as objects are, in fact, the results of the play between the particles and our senses. The particles, themselves, are not the object. They are, as it happens, nothing like the object. The object exists in consciousness and nowhere else. It is what Barfield calls “a representation.” The seemingly instantaneous, unconscious process of experiencing the stimuli then interpreting them as representations Barfield calls “figuration.” Figuration can be spoken of as a kind of thinking, though it is “not primarily a thinking about.” Figuration can also be mistaken (as when one interprets a sound as the song of a thrush then, upon investigation, discovers it to be the song of a nightingale) but whether or not the process of figuration is carried out with the benefit of all available stimuli does not alter the fact that what is being perceived is a representation.
Though they clearly exist within individual consciousness, representations are not, by any means, wholly personal phenomena. Rather, for the most part, our individual representations are also tacitly agreed upon within our given culture. They are “collective representations.” Barfield elaborates on this important consideration in the following way:Collective representations do not imply a collective unity distinct from the individuals comprising the social group. On the other hand their existence does not derive from the individual. In these two respects they may be compared to language. Like the words of a language, they are common to the members of a given social group, and are transmitted from one generation to another, developing and changing only gradually in the process.
While it is, of course, impossible for two people to verify that they are looking at the same tree (that they are experiencing then interpreting the stimuli in the same way), they can, at least, agree that they are both looking at something that they each call a tree.This agreement is seldom reflected upon but it constitutes the evolutionary burden of collective representations. It is our collective representations that will inhabit the consciousness of our children that, as Barfield expresses it, will be “built into the souls of our children.” How we think of and manipulate these representations, therefore, determines the course of the development of human consciousness. Evolution is, in this sense, a social process that, as Teilhard contends, takes place through synthesis because the guiding intelligence (Barfield’s Christ-impulse) is not content to rest in “individual centres of consciousness.” The realization of the goal of evolution is, without doubt, a function of countless generations. This burden, however, the burden of transmission, the burden of inheritance, falls primarily on the shoulders of the possessors of a higher stage of consciousness, those capable of what Barfield calls “final participation.” Before we can hope to understand final participation and how it emerges from the unconscious participation that we have been considering up to this point, we must, however, look back to the “original participation” of our ancestors.
“Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomenon.” Original participation involves only limited and relatively diffuse self-awareness. It is not self-reflective and does not reflect upon the phenomenon it perceives. It has, in other words, nothing to do with what Barfield calls “alpha thinking,” (“thinking about representations”) or “beta-thinking” (“thinking about thinking”). In contrast to original participation, however, the participation in which we typically engage is unconscious. In other words, we do not experience representations as representations but as objects with an independent existence. Even when, in an uncharacteristic instance of beta-thinking, we acknowledge (in theory, at least) that representations are dependent on our own consciousness, we tend to quickly set this theory aside in favor of an operative knowledge of phenomena.
In the case of original participation, however, the participation is conscious (though, again, not reflected upon). The participating consciousness is aware of its perceptions as representations– not as representations of particles but as representations of the “psychic and voluntary” force of being that underlies all appearances. Original participation is, thus, an awareness of the within of things. It is an awareness that finds it impossible to conceive of anything as lacking in interior depth because it has not yet experienced itself as, in any meaningful way, divorced from that depth. “The essence of original participation,” according to Barfield, “is that there stands behind the phenomena and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me.” The participating consciousness, then, operates with the implicit understanding that it is one among countless points of interaction with the true substance of the universe, one of countless waves in an unfathomable ocean.
When Ken Wilber, (among many, many others ) talks of myth and the mythic consciousness, he speaks of myth as created, authored, intentionally produced. He speaks of myth as if it had a meaning for its original audience– not, of course, the meaning imposed on it by later generations operating from more advanced developmental level, but a meaning, nonetheless. Barfield, however, would argue that the idea of “meaning,” would, itself, be meaningless to a consciousness that experiences phenomena via original participation. For this type of consciousness, there is little that emerges from immediate experience. There is no possibility of a literal meaning, on one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. For the participating consciousness, everything is a symbol. It is all myth, all metaphor. Everything is experienced in the place of the one thing that lies behind all things. Everything is, as Barfield will later point out in his commentary on the Hebrew language, a name of God.
In the participating consciousness, what Percy Shelley called “the before unapprehended relations of things” are taken completely for granted. Actual metaphor, conscious metaphor is possible only in a consciousness that has the potential to perceive these relationships but has failed to do so. (Barfield describes this as a kind of forgetting, though it stretches the concept of memory well into the atavistic realm). A metaphor is, then, a way of re-enlivening the connections between the representations. It is an intuition of the “forgotten” force of being.
It is important to point out that Wilber, whose theory relies heavily on the developmental theory of Piaget, also refers to a kind of participation and, of course he cites Piaget when he does so. According to Wilber’s selected excerpts, Piaget defines participation as the experience of “certain felt connections” between the perceiver and the perceived. Though these connections appear to a more developed mind as analogies, they are not proper analogies but “syncretistic schema resulting from the fusion of singular terms…” A child (or a culture) at this stage of development believes in these “hidden linkages” simply because the child as yet lacks the capacity for a more sophisticated interpretation. When she passes into the next stage of development, the child exercises her newfound capacity to reinterpret the external evidence and finds that the “hidden linkages don’t hold up in reality.”
This view would seem to have much in common with Barfield’s own take on “felt connections” except for the fact that, in Barfield’s view, the participating consciousness holds no beliefs and is capable of no conscious interpretation (in the sense that it is incapable of experiencing itself as more than provisionally separate from the phenomena it perceives). Most importantly, however, Barfield would maintain that there is demonstrably no such thing as external evidence. If the participating consciousness apprehended phenomena as different from ours then the phenomena, because they were dependent on the consciousness that perceived them, were quite simply different phenomena. This is how Barfield carefully restates the issue:Anthropology began by assuming as a matter of course that primitive peoples perceive the same phenomena as we do and, on that assumption, investigated their beliefs about these phenomena. Now, however, some anthropologists have begun to point out that the difference between the primitive outlook and ours began at an earlier stage. It is not only a different alpha-thinking but a different figuration that we have to contend with…This involves not only that we think differently but that the phenomena (collective representations) themselves are different.
Words, to the participating consciousness, are not representations of phenomena but are representations of something else in precisely the same way as phenomena are representations of something else. On the other side of the word, as on the other side of phenomena, is the stuff of which all things are made. Of course, not all (and probably very little) extant myth emerged unadulterated from a fully participating consciousness, but all myth represents, at the very least, the vestiges of original participation. For example, Barfield sees the ancient Greeks, in spite of their unmatched mental alacrity and unprecedented tendency toward beta-thinking, as a culture just beginning to emerge from original participation. This is why he warns that if we insist upon translating words such as nous and logos as mind and word respectively, we risk desiccating these words, depriving them of the felt connections that, far from mistaken interpretations of the surfaces of phenomena, were, in fact, intuitions of their depth.
All of this begs the question that, by now, would have occurred to even a casual reader of Wilber. Was Barfield a perpetuator of the pre/trans fallacy (Wilber’s term for the failure to distinguish between early, prerational states of consciousness and later, transrational states of consciousness)? The answer is, perhaps, not unequivocal. It is true that Barfield refuses to regard participating consciousness as mistaken, simply because the power of figuration, regardless of who is wielding it, is the power merely to interpret stimuli, not to determine anything about the ultimate source of the stimuli. It is also true that, even with this unavoidable relativism in mind, Barfield refuses to dismiss original participation’s intuition of a shared depth among all phenomena. Barfield flatly denies, however, any nostalgia for the oceanic consciousness that was typical of original participation and he repeatedly makes it clear that under no circumstances does he advocate a regression to a consciousness of this type.
Barfield professes himself to be well aware of the importance of ego individuation, of the necessity of abandoning original participation in order to experience ourselves as distinct individuals. It is this ability, Barfield insists, that makes us human. It is also this ability that serves as a bridge to final participation but only if we are able to avoid the pitfalls (pathologies, in Wilber’s terminology) of our current state by bringing participation up from its unacknowledged depths and into the light of consciousness, only if we are capable of reigning in the power of figuration to shape the phenomena by shaping our awareness of them. There have been, according to Barfield, many fits and starts in the effort to effect the emergence into final participation but there was, in the history of human consciousness, only one truly right-minded vehicle to deliver us from the numinous morass in which our primitive ancestors lived their lives.
Though this is less explicit in his thinking than in the thinking of his fellow evolutionary theologians, Barfield, at times, seems to equate the evolution of manifestation with the development of a single, all-containing organism. Barfield’s universe is not empty space in which planets hang and events unfold with no connective tissue in between. It is, rather, the conjunction of time, space, matter and meaning—a field of “cosmic wisdom.” It is a changing intelligence that is not affected by change but is, in a sense, change, itself. If, as Barfield suggests, “a man is no longer regarded as a lunatic who divines that the things which happen to a person, and the order in which they happen, may be as much a part of him as his physical organism,” then it requires no great leap to “extend this perception to the biographies of nations and races and humanity as a whole.” For Barfield, the most instrumental among the nations was the nation of the Israelites from the time of its Exodus until the birth of Christ.
From the perspective of his faith, Barfield seemed unable to think of the Jews in historical terms as anything other than a bridge from paganism to Christianity. With the exception of this prejudice, however, it is clear that the intuitions Barfield derived from a characteristically Jewish, mystical understanding of language are not confined to his Old Testament exegesis but pervade his whole theory. It is, in fact, these intuitions that make his theory whole. To begin with there is his conviction that, “in the course of the earth’s history, something like a Divine Word has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created—so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man.” Of all his metaphors for the relationship of the divine to the human, this trope, with its faint echoes of Jewish creation mysticism, is, perhaps, the one that best encapsulates his theory.
Barfield’s view of the historical function of Judaism is directly related to his unique conception of idolatry. Barfield defines idolatry as“the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way or for the wrong reason and an idol as an image so valued.” Representations becomes idols when we forget or fail to realize they are representations and value them as objects in themselves. According to Barfield, the unique contribution of the Jews to the evolution of consciousness was their unprecedented rejection of idolatry.
Barfield explains that in ancient Greek, the word eidelon simply and innocuously denoted the word image. In ancient Hebrew, however, the word takes on a negative, even repulsive, connotation. There are, in fact, numerous Hebrew words that are typically rendered in English as idol and each of these words denotes a sense of the absence of the divine from the representations. To Barfield’s mind, this perspective constitutes a deliberate and directed break from original participation. The Israelite of the time was simply not disposed to regard the idol (either the idol in the sense of a graven image or Barfield’s expanded sense of the word that includes all phenomena) as a “resting place” for the divine. The alternative understanding was that the divine rests in the depths of human consciousness alone (in a sense, this is reminiscent of Augustine’s statement that “God is deeper within me than I, myself”). This does not deny the fact of divine immanence but is rather an acknowledgment that the (individual and collective) interior of the human consciousness is where all phenomena, all representations acquire their being as objects. Placing God among them does not render God an object among objects or an idol among idols but, instead, positions God to see the representations through human eyes—and, as we know, seeing, to the extent that it involves figuration, is also a kind of creating. As God stands to humanity, humanity stands to the phenomena, in a “directionally creator” relationship. When we learn to think of our eyes as God’s eyes, this relationship begins to blur into a kind of conscious oneness. Barfield credits the Israelites, however, with no more than an intuition of this oneness, with the first foray into unity through their genuine intimacy with God.
It was in his contemplation of the incommunicable name of God, the tetragrammaton, that Barfield sensed most deeply the unfolding of this mysterious relationship. To his mind, it was the tetragrammaton that made it possible, for the first time, for human beings to contain within themselves the blissful secret that God is not wholly other but is being, itself– one’s very being, not “thou,” but “I.” Of course, Barfield is far from alone in his recognition of the relationship of the tetragrammaton to the Hebrew verb “to be” or in his observation that, “when any true child of Israel perused the unspoken Name, יהוה must seemed to have come whispering up, as it were, from the depths of his own being.” The uniqueness of Barfield’s position did not lie in his sometimes patent (though lyrically expressed) observations about the Hebrew language or scriptures but in the inspired way in which he married these observations to his own evolutionary theory. From his at times unremarkable reading of the “Old Testament” he brings forth a remarkable reading of the New, a reading that teases out all that is shocking, even breathtaking in the gospels, all that urges us forward rather than entrenches us in tradition and conventional morality.
It is here that we begin to see the importance of personality in Barfield’s scheme. Barfield’s Jesus was nothing if not an iconoclast and, as such, he represented the vanguard and the culmination of human potential. While the generations from Moses to Jesus uttered the divine name only in the Holy of Holies or in the sacred interior of the human heart, Christ, himself, baldly declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and, “I and the father are one.” In calculating the effect of such statements, Barfield asks us to consider the closeness of the Aramaic dialect of Jesus to the Hebrew of Jesus’ ancestors. Barfield speculates that “at each ‘I am’ the disciples must almost have heard the Divine Name itself, man’s Creator, speaking through the throat of man; till they can hardly have known whether he spoke to them or in them, whether it was his voice that they heard or their own.”
Barfield imagines that the most difficult thing, however, for Jesus’ original audience to grasp must have been the “hard passages,” those parables that neatly dismiss conventional morality, traditional ideas of uprightness and equity, in exchange for a moment in which we are able 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.” To, even momentarily, see the world in this way, invites us to replace our careful, dogged obedience with what must at first feel like reckless imagination.
Barfield, does not, in fact, deny that imagination can be reckless. Once we understand ourselves to be truly distinct from the representations, the representations, themselves become not just objects of direct experience but objects of memory. They are, then, ours to do with as we will and any facets we add to our own representations have the potential to become hardened into the collective representations of our descendants. It was the function of the imagination of Jesus, however, to picture the world as a manifestation of his perfect love. It was an imagination that moved from “within outward” instead of from “without inward.” When Jesus invited his audience to imagine the world in a new way, he invited them to, in effect, create a new world, “not to correct their previous ideas but to move forward to a new plane that includes, rather than replaces the old.”
For the rest of us, Barfield acknowledged that imagination is not always synonymous with good. The often self-conscious, sometimes puerile imagination of the Romantics, whose “impulse to iconoclasm” Barfield admired but whose excesses he disdained, is a case in point. Barfield suspects, however, that genuine imagination implies, at the very least, a certain “receptivity” as opposed to the hardness that one associates with a literal mindset. If metaphor is the vehicle of imagination and the practical function of metaphor is to shine a light on the delicate relationships among the representations, how can we can we employ our truly imaginative faculties to look upon phenomena so close to us with anything but wholehearted compassion? How can we not embrace figuratively what our consciousness has already embraced literally—the whole universe fragilely poised within our own minds, utterly dependent, for its persistence, its growth and realization, upon our sympathetic regard? Besides, as Barfield might argue, if to exercise the imagination is to experience something of what it is like to know (and by knowing, create) the universe from God’s perspective then it is reasonable to assume that the divine lens does not pervert what it sees.
As perfect as he imagines it will be, Barfield concedes that, because the mass of humanity has yet to realize its potential for final participation, it is difficult to provide anything other than a vague, speculative description of how it will be experienced. Probably the best clue Barfield provides is in his Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, when he attempts to capture the process of composing poetry. Barfield observes that most poets (most artists, for that matter) attest to a sense of receiving, rather than inventing their work. The common feeling is that the work comes from deep within them (the unconscious) or from outside of them (Inspiration or the Muse). Most poets do not, however, allow their words to merely remain as they were poured forth onto the page then call the work complete. Instead, they revise and edit. They impose a structure onto what was given to them, rendering it more coherent and communicable.
The perspective from which a poet receives a poem, Barfield calls “creative consciousness.” The perspective from which a poet edits a poem, he calls “contemplative consciousness.” A practiced poet may find himself in and out of each state several times during a single work session. A fully conscious poet would oscillate between the two states so rapidly that the oscillation would be effectively indiscernible. This ability would leave him with no doubt that both his inspirational and critical faculties emerge from inside of himself and that there is no part of the process that is not fully subject to his mastery.
Though Barfield never uses the words “final participation” to describe this experience, it seems to fit perfectly with what he has in mind when he speaks of the potential to uncover more of the universe through imagination. Proper imagination is not the mere plucking of ideas from deep within ourselves. It is the responsible application of our innate reason to those ideas (those representations) so that they form an intelligible picture of the universe. It is a kind of “saving the appearances”—an accounting for the behavior of the phenomena in a way that does not violate the universal laws that are understood to govern that behavior. If it seems that such a system lacks accountability from the outside, it is important to recall that there is no knowing the outside but through the inside. All of these interactive elements– creative intuition, pure reason, the phenomena, themselves– are born in consciousness and will achieve final synthesis only there. In Barfield’s view this synthesis, this perfect Knowing, was accomplished first in the person of Jesus Christ but is destined to one day become the average mode of human consciousness.
All of this leads us back to the centrality of Christ in Barfield’s evolutionary scheme, to Barfield’s concept of time and his position regarding the uniqueness of the divine realization of Christ. Barfield considers Christianity to be a uniquely “time-embracing” religion. Without the incarnation of Christ there is no Christian faith and the incarnation was an event that occurred at a particular point in the history of consciousness. It is, Barfield believes, no accident that, in a culture that was just beginning to emerge from the unfreedom of original participation into the relative freedom of individuation, a being was born who was capable of leading us from individuation to iconoclasm, from memory to imagination and into the consummate freedom of final, conscious participation.
If Christ is, as Barfield maintains, the human incarnation of the Divine Word then it is an incarnation that is not yet complete. For the coming of Christ was the planting of the seed of the Word in each of us, a seed that, when it finally blossoms will endow us with the power to redeem all of creation by imagining it anew—by, in an almost paradoxical sense, imagining it correctly. Humanity can, and certainly will, advance its understanding of the cosmos by inventing ever finer instruments to reveal more and more depths within the unrepresented, thus transforming those depths into brand new phenomena. For his part, however, Barfield prefers Christ’s path of imagination that, in conceiving of new depths, in effect, reveals them. This, for Barfield, is the direction in which evolution is leading us and it seems to him absurd that so seldom has the connection been made between the central event of Christianity and the fact that progress seems to be built into the very structure of the cosmos. To fail to regard Christ’s incarnation as the nexus of that progress seems to him an insult to the uniqueness of the Christian faith. To regard it as an event that took place solely in the past seems to him an insult to the vastness of time. In Barfield’s words, “Christ is the cosmic wisdom on its way from original to final participation.” In the words of Ken Wilber, “…always and always, the other world is this world rightly seen.”