10 February 2007

They Have Mouths and Speak Not

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:47 am

I’m reluctant to engage Barfield at a detailed level, in part because I feel him pulling me back into the Genesis story that I’d like to leave behind, at least for awhile. But I also attribute my hesitancy to the strange complexity of his ideas and the way he expresses them. The book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, published in 1965. I’ll sample selectively knowing that I’ve omitted most of the good parts in order to retain my narrow focus.

Barfield outlines Plato’s 3-tiered theory of knowledge. At the lowest level are appearances: phenomena as we observe and perceive them, impermanent and constantly in flux. The highest knowledge, the only true knowledge, is wholly independent of material phenomena and sensory perceptions: It is the contemplation by pure intelligence of the divine ideas, and above all of the Supreme Good. The interaction of lowest with highest gives rise to an intermediate, “bastardized” (as Plato characterized it) level, which is mathematics. By contemplating appearances and subjecting them to mathematical scrutiny, man can approach true disembodied knowledge. This epistemologic stairway can be ascended only because the material appearances “participate” the immaterial divine ideas.

In a recent post we witnessed Aquinas building the midlevel stairway with a distinctly logico-mathematical style of doing theology. We observed that Copernicus too used the language of mathematics to interpret the book of the universe. Mathematical hypotheses “save the appearances,” steering the phenomenal world between a mystical Scylla that would absorb the appearances into unreality and a materialistic Charybdis cutting the whole into pieces and setting them afloat as disconnected objects in empty space.

Barfield contends that the ancient Hebrews found a radically different way of saving the appearances, one that rejected participation altogether. For ancient Near Eastern cultures the stairway from raw phenomena to supernatural divinity passed through the idol. An idol is a graven image: a man-made artifact that “represents” a supernatural god in physical form. Representation occupied the same middle position in paganism that mathematics played in Greece, mediating between lower and higher, between the natural and the supernatural.

Suddenly, and as it were without warning, we are confronted by a fierce and warlike nation, for whom it is a paramount obligation to refrain from the participatory heathen cults by which they were surrounded on all sides; for whom moreover precisely that moral obligation is conceived as the very foundation of the race, the very marrow of its being. We owe to the Jews the pejorative significance in the word idol. The representative images, the totemic eidola, which ritually focused the participation of the surrounding Gentile nations, are either condemned by their prophets as evil, or denied as unrealities.

I was hoping to do this in one post, but I think you’ll agree this is already enough for one day. More later.


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