Thursday 7 April 2016

The Inklings 'Group-Theology' implicit in Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams

My ultimate reason for reading the Inklings is a 'spiritual advisers' - as a group, and not only as individuals, I believe they constituted an unique and profound Christian theology for our times.

My new-found, recent ability to understand and empathise with the work of Owen Barfield has led to some 'notion' of how the Inklings work as a complementary group - and how one might derive from this group a theological perspective which is not found in any one of them alone - and, furthermore, which would not be endorsed by any one of them.

What I am suggesting here is, then, something greater than (or at least different from!) the sum of the parts contributed by individual Inklings. And, to reiterate, I am aware than none of the four would be likely to affirm the final totality that I derive from their combination.


In other words, what I am doing here is making a judgement concerning the core contribution of each of the four main Inkling authors (CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield) and assembling these into a single cohesive philosophy or 'ideology' - which includes elements of all four, each unique to that individual, yet combined in a complementary fashion.

(I also believe that each of these authors is abundantly worth individual study! So this synthesis is not meant to replace that study, but to provide an additional angle on them.)

I have already attempted to do this at various points on this blog, but without including as a vital participant - because I didn't previously understand what he was up-to. However, I now find that Barfield adds something which makes for a very different philosophy than when he is either left-out or regarded as merely confirmation of the other authors.


The Inklings work is mostly about imagination - and Barfield's unique contribution to the Inklings perspective is that imagination is potentially real knowledge - i.e. imagination may provide true knowledge about this world: this mortal life on earth and its meaning and purpose.

Without Barfield, there exists a gap between the Inklings account of imagination and the nature of religious, Christian, living. In other words, without Barfield, the Inklings cannot address and alleviate the problem of alienation in the modern world - the problem that we feel our subjectivity to be cut off from reality.

In sum, CSL, JRRT and CW all accept that there is a qualitative gulf between mortal life and Heavenly life - and that all men are in a state of exile. Barfield, by contrast, sees the difference as quantitative and the gap as something which can be closed - initially for brief periods, but with the possibility of an increasing and more sustained closeness between our 'everyday' modern mortal experience and a full participation-in and knowledge-of divine things.

Metaphysically, this is because Barfield is a follower of Rudolf Steiner who adhered to what he termed 'monism' - that there is ultimately one world, and that all the supernatural and ideal elements are, and are meant to be, in one world. This is in contrast to the kind of 'Platonism' seen in (especially) Lewis and Williams - where the real world is (and should be) transcendent; elsewhere, outside of mortal linear time and 3D space.

The element Barfield adds is therefore that imagination is (or can become) not only an analogy or symbolism, but actual knowledge of worlds that the other Inklings regard as higher and other.

Barfield also brings a very different understanding of the role of 'modernity' in terms of Christian history. Tolkien and Lewis see modernity as in essence a bad thing, a corruption - and would advocate a return to earlier modes of thinking. Williams is not far from this - but his Romantic Theology (his primary idea, in my view) is put forward as an optimistic future possibility - something that might revitalize Christianity and lead to a future of new and great achievements. But CW remains profoundly alienated with respect to the human condition: deeply pessimistic and dark in mood and spirit.

Barfield also regards modernity as deeply unsatisfactory - but sees it as a necessary transitional stage to a potentially greater, and ideal, future state of consciousness - superior to anything which has gone before: a 'grown-up' Christianity which combines the 'participation' in life of earlier phases of human existence with the self-aware, purposive, clear-headed and 'scientific' way of thinking of modernity. Barfield is therefore optimistic about human possibilities (although realistic about the fact that modernity seems to have rejected these possibilities and instead descended ever more deeply into materialism and positivism).


In sum, while Barfield's analysis and diagnosis of present spiritual problems is similar to CSL, JRRT and CW - his 'treatment' involves moving forward from this situation to a situation that is superior to any which have yet existed. This movement forwards (progression) is to be achieved by that 'evolution of consciousness' which constitutes Barfield's master idea; and the consciousness aimed-at is not the trance-like or dream-like ('shamanic' or classically mystical) states which are the focus of Lewis, Tolkien and Williams's interest - but by a self-aware, clear, purposive primary thinking of Man as a wholly-free agent.

This is seen as the mode of full, adult imagination; and it is the imagination of this state which constitutes our direct contact with reality - and the solution (however transitory) to modern alienation.

Much more can, and I hope will soon, be said on this theme of the Inklings Group-Theology - but that is enough for now!

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