Friday, August 4, 2023

Strange and Blessed Fire 4: Sow & Reap

Owen Barfield’s longtime friend and anti-materialist co-conspirator, C.S. Lewis, made his own journey from reductive physicalism to something far beyond. Lewis took great pains to ensure his readers and listeners that his position was inarguably commensurate with Christian orthodoxy. 

But as is evident in reading his intellectual autobiography, Surprised By Joy, and his many other works both fictional and nonfictional, his own imagination soared far beyond any limited expression of Christian fundamentalism or literalism.

In Surprised By Joy, Lewis maps out his mental progression from atheist materialism to Christian belief. Lewis came to understand that the materialist position is inconsistent and incomplete. 

We all, he realized, occasionally have subjective and meaningful aesthetic and other experiences of a sort that reductive behavioralism cannot adequately explain. Meaning does not arise from any mechanism. We are not merely biological robots.

If the materialist position fails to satisfy, one is compelled logically to consider the idealist position that mind takes precedence over matter. This is not the conviction that all matter is conscious, but that all is mind. 

Lewis quickly discovered, however, that idealism, and especially the notion of the Absolute within German philosophy, was too impersonal, too abstract. It also failed to contain the full picture. Bernardo Kastrup would likely disagree, but this unsatisfactorily abstract impersonalism highly corresponds with most expressions of Kastrup’s own idea of the “transcendent subjective.”

Lewis turned next to the idealism of the Irish philosopher, George Berkeley. This he found to be far more coherent than the philosophy of Hegel and the German idealists precisely because it appeals to a personal God not an inconceivably transcendent abstraction. But even in his understanding of Berkeley, Lewis’ imagination began to move.

If, as Berkeley asserted, all is the mind of God and He can be experienced as a person then the distinction, which even Berkeley may have helped to perpetuate, between the God of popular religion and the God of theology begins to break down.

At this point, Lewis was well on his way to becoming a theist. And over a fourteen month period, culminating with the famous Oxford stroll and conversation with his friend and mentor, J.R.R. Tolkien, in September 1931, Lewis came to fully accept Christianity.

The Christian path understands Jesus Christ to be the personal expression of God. Lewis realized that it, contrary to fundamentalist arguments, is not the negation of other past or contemporary religions and philosophiesclassical Paganism especiallybut their climax, the completion of the metaphor or the image, so to speak.

Christ’s ministry on Earth is the fulfillment of the myriad multi-cultural Dying God myths, so painstakingly recorded by James Frazer and other scholars of religion, within history itself.

The real clue had been put into my hand by that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, “Rum thing, all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once”: by him and by Barfield’s encouragement of a more respectful, if not more delighted, attitude to Pagan myth. The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”

. . . If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this [the Gospel]. And nothing else in all literature was just like this. Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it. And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson, . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, p.235-6

Christ perfected, not destroyed Mosaic Law and his teaching is not at all contrary to the Pre-Socratics, Plato or the Neoplatonists. In this way, Lewis, like Augustine surprisingly, came to accept the idea of an eternal Christianity which had its fullest and most obvious expression in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Far from demonstrating that the Christian revelation is refuted by the near universal presence of Dying God fables and myths, the relevance of the Gospel is vastly strengthened by it being the crowning and fulfillment of these ancient narratives.

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  

C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” The Grand Miracle, p.41-2

The sacrifice of the first fruits of Spring in substitution of, and/or substituted by, the sacrifice of the priest, king or scapegoat, was in turn exemplified in the ultimate sacrifice of the One, within human form and history, to the One beyond the cosmos. 

Lewis points out, however, that his friend Owen Barfield encouraged both a respectful and delighted reception of these earlier pre-Christian myths, finding within them the fertile soil of original participation. Just as these stories were “redeemed” and made meaningful by the Incarnation, so the Incarnation could only have the significance it contains, from a human perspective, because of millennia of mythic preparation.

Through the Word becoming Flesh, through death and resurrection, the annual ritual killing of the plant-spirit within tribes across the Earth becomes an act of the highest religious and philosophical importance. 

And contrariwise, the ministry of Christ should be accepted as being as humble, as simple, as commonplace and yet as nourishing and necessary, as the yearly harvest cycle. Every King-Kill, even of the King of Kings, is the sow & reap dance of the vegetables.

The killing of the god, that is, of his human incarnation, is therefore merely a necessary step to his revival or resurrection in a better form. Far from being an extinction of the divine spirit, it is only the beginning of a purer and stronger manifestation of it. If this explanation holds good of the custom of killing divine kings and priests in general, it is still more obviously applicable to the custom of annually killing the representative of the tree-spirit or spirit of vegetation in spring. For the decay of plant life in winter is readily interpreted by primitive man as an enfeeblement of the spirit of vegetation; the spirit has, he thinks, grown old and weak and must therefore be renovated by being slain and brought to life in a younger and fresher form. Thus the killing of the representative of the tree-spirit in spring is regarded as a means to promote and quicken the growth of vegetation.

Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, p.300-1

In this way, Christianity should not be threatened by Paganism, nor should Paganism complain that Christianity is intrinsically (although it was often unfortunately this historically) a co-option and colonization of its own best tales. There is but one story. 

And if even someone as hard-nosed and intolerant as St. Augustine at times was, could insist on a timeless Christianity, acknowledging the traces or divine sparks of it as present within the wisdom of all lands, then can we not also reverse the perspective and discover in the authentic Church the wonderful timeless truths of the pagan imagination?

As the most famous Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, celebrated, these insights can be furthered and enriched through the study of fairy tales, themselves narratives with roots in earliest human memory. 

The joy of the fairy story comes finally with the turning, with the happy ending, with what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe,” the good catastrophe: the sudden and miraculous vanquishing of evil, the winning of the treasure, the recovery of the kingdom, the glorious wedding of the prince and princess, the Happily Ever After.

Tolkien then asks us to imagine how much more our joy would become if we found out that one particular fairy story, one that seemed to contain and enact all the others, was indubitably true. This, he asserts, is the Gospel, the good news, the good catastrophe or turning of history.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” The Tolkien Reader, p.89

Art has been verified” and “Legend and History have met and fused.” Lewis elsewhere takes this idea of Tolkien’s, itself likely inspired in large part by Barfield, and does apply it to all art, all literature. 

Not only is the Gospel the archetypal fairy story, not only is it the summary and climax of pagan myth within the historical record, but it, “the Grand Miracle,” is the lost or overlooked cornerstone or chapter to all of literature. 

If, as the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé not alone declared, all of literature really makes up one Book, then it is evident, at least in the West and in parallel or subsequent literature affected by the West, that the placement and importance of the gospel is central to this Book. 

This is certainly my own experience throughout these years of deeply exploring literature with “synchromystic” reading specsthe prose and poetry of the West either anticipates the Incarnation or it is a response, a repetition or an exegesis of it. 

As in the sutra and shastra tradition of India, the lineage of literature is commentary upon commentary upon commentary upon scripture and ultimately vision. This is not to say there was one and only one dispensation and that every subsequent creative act was secondary and derivative of this, but that every genuine work of the imagination arises simultaneously with the Grand Miracle.

Supposing you had before you a manuscript of some great work, either a symphony or a novel. There then comes to you a person, saying, “Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the center of the whole work.” 

The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reflected on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic. On the other hand, if it failed to do that, then, however attractive it was in itself, you would reject it. 

. . . That is why I think this Grand Miracle is the missing chapter in this novel, the chapter on which the whole plot turns; that is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on.

C.S. Lewis, The Grand Miracle, p.56&61-2

Northrop Frye is another author and visionary who teaches that literature is whole and of one cloth. The “words of power” revealed in Ancient Egyptian funerary texts like the famous Papyrus of Ani (The Egyptian Book of the Dead), resound in the Bible and are made new in the epics of modernism.

Frye's colleague Marshall McLuhan, at least more famously, went further. Not only are all texts part of this one book containing the “missing” but crucial chapter, but so are all media, themselves extensions of our nervous system and its linguistic expressions, just as all technology is the extension of various parts and functions of the human body. 

Our text is also tech and in it, embedded and hardwired in the artificial environment we all increasingly dwell within, is the very structure of the Good News, the Mediator to the One, waiting for us to behold it and with this beholding utterly transform and redeem this environment at an instant. And the tale stretches as far back as it does forward.



Of this Divine Mystery the Christian gospel is a reflection in the heart and mind of man. It is an old, old story, retold from generation unto generation. Its words and signs are inherited from a primeval language, a true catholic speech, whose grammar is being recovered in our days from the tombs and dust of prehistoric peoples, from the daily life of savage tribes, and from the tales that are still the bible of the peasant and the child.

Allen Upward, The Divine Mystery, p.xxxv

This “old, old story,” rediscovered in, or maybe intentionally leaked out of, tombs and tribes and tales in our own time, nonetheless did break through into documented history for all to come to witness at a definite point and for a definite purpose along the course of the evolution of human consciousness. 

According to Rudolf Steiner, this “Mystery of Golgotha,” which occurred almost precisely at the midpoint between the birth of Alexander the Great and the death of Emperor Julian the (so-called) Apostatethereby the centremark of Greco-Roman empireenabled a democratic initiation of all humanity into individuated consciousness, even if for some centuries precise understanding of this event and its initiation was mostly lacking.

Now there is one period of time that has had to be left out in tracing this evolution: the period between Alexander and Julian. In the middle of this period fell the Mystery of Golgotha. Those to whom the Mystery of Golgotha was brought did not receive it as men who understood the Mysteries, otherwise they would have had quite different ideas of the Christ Who lived in the man Jesus of Nazareth.

A few there were, a few contemporaries of the Mystery of Golgotha, who had been initiated in the Mysteries, and these were still able to have such ideas of Him. But by far the greater part of Western humanity had no ideas with which to comprehend spiritually the Mystery of Golgotha.

Rudolf Steiner, World History in the Light of Anthroposophy, p.99

All poetry aspires to mysticism. All Western mysticism is infused with the Mystery of Golgotha. 

Owen Barfield, a follower of Steiner and in some respects both a popularizer and rationalizer of Steiner’s ideas on the evolution of consciousness, understands that the gospel of Christ was the key to collectively advance from the passive non-duality of original participation to the more liberating affirmation, involving duality within non-duality, of final participation and thereby bypassing or escaping from history. 

History in its fully secular prose sense did not begin until it was tabulated within the published histories of Herodotus in the 5th century BC. And by then the Hebrew prophets had already valorized history as the setting for the unveiling of the divine plan. Christ then, unlike his predecessorsKrishna, Zoroaster, even the Buddhalands within history as history. 

There may indeed be certain retroactive, as it were, evidence for the historical reality of Siddhartha Gotama, but even so he lived during a time that did not yet understand itself as being literal, progressive, prosaic, historical. In contrast, in the thought of Steiner and Barfield at least, Christ was the first and triumphal saviour of history, the liberator from idolatry.

From this vantage, Christ as the emissary of the One descended and sacrificed Himself to forgive our sins (i.e. artificial separation) and to provide a way or an archetype for us to be like Himself both one (individual) and One (the All). 

Instead, as in the transitional phase of “idolatry,” of experiencing everything that we perceive as being outside of and alienated from ourselves, we would once again merge with the “objects” of perception, but this time with our own subjectivity fully intact. 

For only in this way, as Coleridge also instructed, can a human individual truly create as the Creator created us. And this involves charging perception with the active imagination. 

. . . Participation as an actual experience is only to be won to-day by special exertion; that it is a matter, not of theorizing, but of imagination in the genial or creative sense. A systematic approach towards final participation may therefore be expected to be an attempt to use imagination systematically.

. . . Therefore, as imagination reaches the point of enhancing figuration itself, hitherto unperceived parts of the whole field of the phenomenon necessarily become perceptible. Moreover, this conscious participation enhances perception not only of the present phenomena but also of the memory-images derived from them.

Owen Barfield, Saving The Appearances, p.137-8

Here, Barfield provides the key to entire mystery and also its method; the imagination is systematically employed to enhance “figuration” (the process of perception). By actively employing the imagination, redirecting it back into perception, the entire “field of the phenomenon” alters. 

What was once unnoticed by the senses can now become apprehended, and this not only affects sensation in the present, but retroactively, as it were, transforms the objects of memory as well.

Yet this is not to suggest that one would be able to suddenly “see” things which were always already there. This, after all, would imply that there actually is a given, objective world “out there” that reveals itself in a similar way that furniture flashes into sight when a lamp is turned on in a dark room. But neither would one be experiencing phenomena that are “not there,” mere figments of fancy.

Whereas both of these perspectives take the existence of an objective world for granted, for Barfield the “objective” realm of “particles,” of the indifferent interstellar void, has been bracketed off as being practically meaningless to lived human experience. 

Indeed, this radical phenomenology is not all that different from philosophical idealism. Mind is prior to and elevated from matter, and it is mind which has been opened up and enhanced by the active application of the imagination. 

Repeating Nietzsche once more, we are already the largely unconscious artists of all that we perceive; the further step that Barfield is advocating is, in a way, simply that we make this process conscious.

In our present historical and transitional phase of “idolatry,” it is precisely this unconsciousness with regards to perception that causes us to feel that there is an independent world “out there,” separate from our senses, our relations, our desires, our memories, our fantasies, our emotions, our bodily movements. 

This is not to say, however, that our own world(s) of experience does not have its own habits, rules, customs, “laws,” consequencesif you jump from the roof of a high building you would almost certainly land with a horrible squish to the ground. But ultimately, none of these patterns are fixed. Imagination is the overruling agency. It is a matter of how powerfully, how consciously and intentionally, it is wielded.

This thought is not original or unique with Barfield, or even to Steiner who preceded him. Steiner himself was deeply impacted by his early and profound study of Goethe and related figures within the German romantic and idealist tradition (in addition to Nietzsche, who Steiner later visited). And Samuel Taylor Coleridge, also influenced by his German near-contemporaries, was admittedly an English source of Barfield’s ideas, as the latter conveyed in What Coleridge Thought

Coleridge famously explains in his Biographia Literaria, that while the Primary Imaginationthe continual creation of the world through the process of normal human perceptionrepeats what the infinite I AM originally achieved with the creation of the cosmos, the Secondary Imagination furthers ordinary perception to the conscious creation of poetry and art.

The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. 

The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Chapter XIII, Biographia Literaria, The Major Works, p.313

Once again the method is evident. Through perception, naturally but unconsciously engaged in by everyone at every moment, we passively reproduce or reenact creation, but through the imaginative enhancement of perception our creations become infinitely meaningful works of art. This enhanced perception ceases to be experienced as separate from us. It is understood as being begotten by us.

The obvious question that arises here is, how can this method be enacted? It is easy to speak of supercharging perception with imaginative salience, but how is this done? Clearly, there is a missing step; an essential angle of our trinity is absent. The Word is the bridge from Imagination to Perception.

The Word in an important sense is all words, all language, all technologyas McLuhan taughtthat extends from language. When we explore or spelunk, as Barfield did, back through the etymological caverns of language, we discover that there are gods behind and dwelling within each and every word. 

The study of etymology represents travel through time back to original participation. Here, as in the schemata of Vico and Frye, all words were “words of power;” no definite boundaries yet existed between words, gods, things and the perceiving minds of men.

Yet it was also through words that separation arose, that “idolatry” resulted. Perhaps the first statement of separation is the I AM itself. It is the Word. As the Spirit unified and identified itself as a single egoic consciousness, humanity, reflecting this ultimate I AM, individuated itself out into separate consciousnesses as well.  

The Burning Bush of the I AM revelation is the same Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by which humanity fell through its awareness of duality and separation. And thus arose the fear of the gods that the original human couple might eat of the Tree of Eternal Life and “become like us,” possessing both the egoic I AM, dualistic consciousness, and the conscious return to non-dual awareness of eternity. So this Tree is also one. The way of descent is also the way of return ascent. 

And the Tree is also the Cross, both of wood and of light. It is the true seat of the world and it is here where imagination and perception can become consciously united again. But the Cross, the most basic technology, symbol of death and liberation, is not primarily physical or technological. It is not centred exclusively in time or space. It dwells in our hearts. 

As British mystic, William Law, an immense influence on Blake and later Barfield and Lewis, and himself deeply inspired and informed by the German mystic and shoemaker, Jacob Boehme, teaches:

Though God be everywhere present yet He is only present to thee in the deepest and most central part of thy soul. Thy natural senses cannot possess God, or unite thee to Him; nay, thy inward faculties of Understanding, Will and Memory can only reach after God, but cannot be the place of His habitation in thee. But there is a root or depth in thee, from whence all these faculties come forth, as lines from a centre, or as branches from the body of the tree. This depth is called the Centre, the Fund or Bottom of the soul. This depth is the Unity, the Eternity, I had almost said Infinity of thy soul; for it is so infinite that nothing can satisfy it, or give it any rest but the infinity of God.

William Law, The Spirit of Prayer, quoted in Saving The Appearances, p.158

Within the heart or the soul is found the Cross, the Word, the door which opens both upwards to Spirit and downwards to Matter. Here again is the cardiac synthesizer, the little space of the Upanishad which is as great as the universe, the common sense. 

From the Creation to the Fall, then, is the long paleolithic trance of prehistory and original participation, the far journey before the opposites to the taste of the fruit of the first tree. And this was followed by the nightmare of history, the idolatry of dualism spanning from our exile from the Garden to final Apocalypse. 

But between these extremesat their very midpointis the turning, the Cross, which is the entry up to the second tree, ultimately experienced as being a single tree. At this turning, the joining of duality and non-duality has already been attained for thoseChristian and otherwisewith eyes to see and ears to hear and noses to smell. The Abyss of the Tree of Life has been crossed and the Kingdom is spread across the land, under the rock and within the split log. 

The sensory world is synesthetically fashioned and coagulated at this locus and projected outward, mistaken as a place apart. But to return to this depth, to this decentred centre within us all, is to regain and restore Paradise, and even more: to reach the final satisfaction of “the infinity of God.”

As we were lost at the Tree through the Word, by the Tree and the Word we will also be restored, but this time perfected. It is a matter of entirely inverting perception.


  1. "The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reflected on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic."

    This reminds me of Indra's net. The "one Book" would be the entire (and infinite) net, and each fragment one of the jewels.
    It is all already here, what is missing are clear (ie meaningful) connections between each part. Links are being made -jewels start reflecting each other- when the fragments become isomorphic all together, bringing about a realization of immanence.

    I think that is what RAW was attempting with his own autobiography Cosmic Trigger II.
    This idea also seems to play a central part in the structure of Finnegans Wake. And I can see echoes of Borges as well in these concepts.

    It's great to read from you again, Znore! Thank you very much for these posts.

    1. Exactly. I also see the connection with Indra's net/wake. Derrida can smuggled in here as well. Thanks for the great comment.