Author Archives: Colin Foote Burch

Malcolm Guite on Owen Barfield: Knowledge, Poetry, and Consciousness

This summer, I’m reading Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning by Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis’s closest friends. By today’s standards, all of the Inklings were peculiar dudes, but back then, Barfield and Charles Williams were especially peculiar, Barfield basically a disciple of Rudolf Steiner and Williams an Anglican while also an initiate into secretive magical orders. And yet, Barfield’s book Poetic Diction influenced both Lewis’s writing and Tolkien’s, and beyond the Inklings, was praised by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Howard Nemerov. So I appreciate Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite’s illumination of Barfield’s perspectives, which take a little time to grasp. They are, however, rewarding.

A quick summertime appeal

Hi everyone — A warm welcome to the summer! As you enjoy this blog’s curious voyages through faith, doubt, and wonder, I’m asking you for a quick donation of a buck. A dollar. Just $1. Less than a cup of coffee, less than the tip on your bar tab. Because the more support this blog receives, the more I can share through it. Donating is easy through this safe and secure PayPal link: paypal.me/cfb4 . Thank you for any support you can offer. All the best! — Colin

A brief note about the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity

Some of my posts over the past four years have focused on the influence of ancient mystery religions on the development of Christianity. Here’s a brief quote, really a footnote, found in a friend’s book on Neoplatonism:

“That which is utterly beyond us and cannot be expressed or thought is by its very transcendence of distance and difference most intimately present. The Neoplatonists express this with particular force: it was from them that Christianity and Islam learnt their understanding of the unity of transcendence and immanence.” — A.H. Armstrong, in Hellenic and Christian Studies (Aldershot: Variorum, 1990)

What Cicero saw in the Eleusinian mystery religion and its similarities to Christianity

In Cicero’s dialogue “On the Laws,” a character comments on the Eleusinian mysteries:

“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those mysteries. For by means of them we have transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.”

So there you have four points that sound like outcomes from an evangelical conversion experience: (1) transformation from sinfulness to fullness, (2) knowledge of the source of life, (3) joy in this life, and (4) hope for life after death.

That quotation from the Cicero dialogue was found in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Here I’m including it as an additional note to some of my previous posts about ancient mystery religions, including this one and this one and this one. If you read the dialogue quotation with these three links in this paragraph, Cicero’s character seems to add something more than mere external and descriptive similarities between ancient mystery religions and Christianity. He seems to add something that maps with Christianity in the realm of interiority and values: enlightened living, joy for this life, hope for a wonderful afterlife.

It’s worth mentioning that the two most influential Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, saw these kinds of similarities not as challenges to Christianity but as supports for Christianity. Generally speaking, they believed the myths, poems, and philosophies of the ancient world were different kinds of divine revelation that prepared people for the advent of Christ — in Lewis’s famous phrase, “myth became fact,” meaning myths or pieces of myths were historically actualized and tied together in the Incarnation.

That being said, having been grown up with simultaneous influences of two very different strands of American Bible-skimming fundamentalism, I have to say the ancient mystery religions and their similarities to Christianity are a huge challenge to Christian faith (again, follow the above links). As a friend and I were saying the other night, the ancient mystery religions, sharing so many similarities to Christianity, challenge the assumptions and claims that there never was anything like Christianity before.

I finally understand the Truly Reformed approach to interpreting the Bible

My interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect because my interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect.

For all their stated emphasis on grace, some Reformed Christian folks demonstrate such certainty in their own understandings that they actually emphasize their own interpretative stances over anything else, including grace.

What does this have to do with anything? Take a look at a few rounds of this video debate between a Reformed guy and a Roman Catholic guy, as I did recently.

Watch how they both selectively avoid the consequences of the opposing proof texts. Notice how their selective engagements involve work-arounds that have nothing to do with the texts themselves.

The take-away from their exchange, in my opinion, is simply that systematizing the Bible into a complete set of firm answers and airtight conclusions is not possible. But some people can only have a Bible if they have an infallible interpretation of it, too.

Watching the debate also reminded me that the late great French Protestant Jacques Ellul once said “the Bible is not a recipe book or an answer book, but the opposite: it is a book of questions God asks us.”

Czeslaw Milosz on Imagination, with reference to Blake, Dante, and Swedenborg

Through Imagination, spiritual truths are transformed into visible forms. Although he took issue with Swedenborg on certain matters, Blake felt much closer to his system than to that of Dante, whom he accused of atheism. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is modeled on Swedenborg, and he would have been amused by an inquiry into whether he had ‘really’ seen the devils and angels he describes. The crux of the problem—and a serious challenge to the mind—is Blake’s respect for both the imagination of Dante, who was a poet, and the imagination of Swedenborg, whose works are written in quite pedestrian Latin prose…. Neither Swedenborg nor Blake was an aesthetician, and they did not enclose the spiritual within the domain of art and poetry and oppose it to the material. At the risk of simplifying the issue by using a definition, let us say rather that they both were primarily concerned with the energy which reveals itself in a constant interaction of Imagination with the things perceived by our five senses.” — Czeslaw Milosz, from his essay “Dostoevsky and Swedenborg,” in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (boldface added)

Note: In my paperback copy of Emperor of the Earth, the word “Imagination” appears with a capitalized “I,” but in online sources I found, including the one linked above, it is not always capitalized. For Milosz’s purposes, I think it’s fitting to capitalize the first letter of Imagination as a way to designate it as something larger than what Coleridge would call, in contrast to Imagination, mere “fancy.”

True Love

“I’m probably not predestined, but I love John Calvin,” said no one, ever.