Sunday, 22 September 2019

Mark Vernon - A Secret history of Christianity - Jesus, the Last inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness

I was looking forward to this book for a number of reasons.  The first reason was that i think that Owen Barfield, the "Last Inkling" from the title,  was an important thinker whose ideas could act as a  cultural corrective on the prevalent nihilistic materialism of our time, so a popular accessible book expounding his ideas would be welcome. The Second was it could help me personally by exploring some of the ramifications of Barfield's ideas in the context of Christian History. Barfield's thinking is radical in modern terms so there are lot of implications to be thought through and any help in that regard would be appreciated. This book does neither of these things.

I'm disappointed by the work. While Mark's book might inspire some people to read Owen Barfield's work and so spread engagement with his ideas, the ideas are Mark's rather than Barfield's. Barfield may have inspired a certain strain of thinking in him that he then explored in this book, but it is not an engagement of Barfield's thinking and there is so much in it that Barfield would have objected to.  I also found this book counter-productive to understanding Barfield's thinking as it's misinterpretations obscures rather than reveals Barfield.

Mark Vernon has a different kind of mind to Barfield,  he is a psychologist whereas Barfield is more of a philosopher, Barfield moves slowly around his ideas and hammers them out, whereas Vernon covers a lot of ground quickly.  I wonder if Vernon thinks through a lot of his sentences. Take this quote:
...with  it, more insights into divine activity could be uncovered. It's not that the facts would become firmer, but that the implications richer. The Israelites, along with other ancient peoples, were embedded in such an experience of life. They had no perception of the this-worldly criteria that so intensely informs what we make of things now. p15 
There are no mention of Barfield's concept of figuration which is the almost automatic thinking we do that shapes our perceptions, that combines sense data (percepts) with concepts. This would be a good time to introduce it as the "this world" that they lived in and the "fact based" were not ours. Instead it just implies that their lives are well described by our concept of "other worldly" and that they ignored "facts", if Mark thinks this then he's contradicting Barfield if he doesn't then he isn't using his language to hammer this thinking out.

In the introduction he talks about Barfield's theory of evolution of consciousness and says he wasn't the first thinker to think in this way and mentions a few earlier thinkers but he fails to mention Rudolf Steiner, no mention is made of Steiner at all in the book, which is a major oversight as Steiner was the most important influence on Barfield and particularly on his thinking of the evolution of consciousness and the nature of thinking and perception.

Another quote:
Myths and stories in oral traditions live in telling and retelling as they are elaborated across various versions. Such layers of remembrance would have charged the venerable names, Abraham and Moses, with the active reality p30
Here Mark is elaborating a theory of building up meaning and significance over time, the general movement of meaning that Barfield notices over time is the separation out of more specific concepts out of more wholistic ones, not as here suggested the development of meaning. I would see the move to writing as possibly having an alienating effect as words can be on a scroll and exterior to yourself rather than living inside you in memory in an oral tradition.

Mark's work is often diametrically opposed to Barfield's and there are a few times where he seems to almost be taunting Barfield.
...I don't think the resurrection is supposed to be treated as empirical evidence of his divine humanity. It's not as if someone with a smartphone, hurled back across the centuries, could catch the stone  rolling away and post the verification online...p131
This seems like a deliberate reference to Barfield's objection to H G Wells Time traveller whose seeing is conditioned by the modern consciousness that they take back with them in time, but Mark is siding here with Wells against Barfield.

This opposition extends to idolatry and iconoclasm which are opposite poles. Idolatry was a central concern for Barfield and here Mark Vernon is claiming that atheism and scientism (Barfield often uses the term Positivism) are iconoclastic:
atheism and scientism are iconoclastic movements. They are both linked to enhancements in the consciousness of being individual. They have facilitated a range of reforms that have deepened people's sense of inner freedom, expressed in good things from social mobility to universal education.p164
Now Barfield gives this description of our common understanding of what idolatry is:
It can happen with those sacred images, which play such an essential part in most religions...they begin by being perceived by the faithful, as images. That is as material representations of a immaterial reality. And then as time goes on, perception weakens, or it is atrophied, and the material alone is perceived and felt as real. the sacred images have become sacred things, and it is the things themselves that are worshipped or propitiated. They have become, in fact, idols. p32 History, Guilt & Habit
Barfield goes on to liken this to the process from participatory consciousness whose
common sense was one for which immaterial was perceived as well, in the act of perceiving the has come to accept the outer for its own sake only and not as the manifestation or garb of another immaterial component. Reality is assumed to consist of things, not of images.p32 ibid
Barfield spends rather more time developing this idea but he is very much likening the move from the kind of common sense experienced in ancient participatory consciousness to that of modern atheistic consciousness to a fall into idolatry. He even likens the sin of religious idolatry to the taboo of the modern sort "And if you think it is not taboo today to question...the validity of that mental picture we have of Darwinian man, just try to get a hearing for it in the media." p33 ibid

Also Mark linking atheism to a "deepened ... sense of inner freedom" strikes me as odd when it more  naturally leads to Richard Dawkins' deterministic "lumbering robots", which envisages our thoughts being secreted by the biological processes in our brains, what materialism does lead to is alienation, a sense of separateness, so it is in that way that it emphasises the individual.

I feel the decision to write in chronological order from past to present is also a mistake. The present is the best starting place as we know it most directly, the words we use to describe it are current words with their current meanings and as we move into the past these words, our tools of expression, become more problematic as our current meanings are strange to former times. Mark seems way too confident  in the ability of modern words and concepts to capture the life of the past.

At the start I said I was disappointed by this work, the reason being I expected it to explore the ramifications of Barfield's thinking across the history of Christianity. In reflecting upon my disappointment I am reminded that knowledge of Owen Barfield's thinking is limited, he is not well known or widely read, so it's likely that more readers of this book will come to it not knowing of Barfield. The book is Mark Vernon's exploration of a theory of changes in consciousness or  psychology across Christian History. I wish Mark expressed the differences he has with Barfield because people reading this will likely come away with the misconception that book aligns with Barfield's thinking when it does not. Barfield may have been the inspiration for the book but he was not the intended audience.