Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment; and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain. (Psalm 104:2)
For the pagans, the Greeks, the medievalists, nature participates God, revealing in bedimmed image a divine essence that suffuses the surfaces of the world as light shining through fabric reveals the shadows and contours of the reality behind it. The appearances that reveal but an image of the depths, the representation of the immaterial in matter: isn’t this, asks Barfield, what the Psalmist sees?
For a moment we are inclined to feel that the Psalmist, too, is experiencing the representations as representations, and the world as a theophany. But as we read on, we are impressed more and more with the enormous difference between this world and the world either of Greek or of medieval man… For here is not only no hint of mythology, but no real suggestion of manifestation. Everything proclaims the glory of God, but nothing represents Him. Nothing could be more beautiful, and nothing could be less Platonic.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and so are the stony rocks for the conies, but it is not, we are made to feel, by contemplating these phenomena that we shall rise to the contemplation of the invisible Divinity who brought them into being. Here, too, the appearances are indeed grounded in divinity; but they are not grounded in the same way. They are not appearances — still less, ‘names’ — of God. They are things created by God. There is, in short, nothing to suggest ‘immanence,’ and everything to suggest the contrary.
If, moreover, we review the Old Testament as a whole, we shall scarcely find there suggested what we find assumed by both Aristotle and Aquinas, namely, that knowledge of God’s creation can become knowledge of God… The Jew could rejoice in the appearances; but he was not curious about them. He was not interested in them. He was, above all, detached from them.
Yahweh’s commandment not to make any graven images was, says Barfield, perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. Everyone else represented their gods; Israel was forbidden from having anything to do with nations whose gods participated the appearances of the material world. It’s too easy to substitute the sensory appearance of the representation for the reality it represents, as if the idol were a numinous object in its own right: this is idolatry.
I think that’s all I want to say about Barfield. The questions I ask myself are these:
- Thought as a representation of Truth: isn’t this an essentially pagan/Greek idea? The same holds for language as representation of Truth. The idea of representation implies that truths participate minds or words in the same way they might participate the sun or the mountains or graven images.
- Did the Hebrews conceive of thought and language in non-representational terms? Just as the Creation is wholly other than the Creator, are ideas and discourses wholly other than the truths toward which they point?
- What is the nature of a Hebraic Truth that does not participate minds and words? Is it knowable?