Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Great War (CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, and—Anthroposophy)

The following first appeared in my old blog a few years ago. I've always considered the letter by CS Lewis quoted here to be among the best and most significant he ever wrote, and it seemed important enough to me to merit posting it once again.

The Great War (CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, and—Anthroposophy)

CS Lewis, when speaking about Owen Barfield, once said that there are two kinds of best friends a person can have. One was the type of friend Lewis had during his younger years in Arthur Greeves, and this was the kind of person with whom you had everything in common. The other was the kind of friend he had in Owen Barfield, and this was the type of friend with whom you disagree about everything: "He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one... How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right? He is as fascinating (and infuriating) as a woman."

Owen Barfield was a lifelong friend to CS Lewis despite their differences in opinion. They were introduced during their days as students at Oxford by another student, Leo Baker. Baker was a priest with the Anthroposophical Christian Community and taught at one of the early schools started by the Anthroposophical Society to promote the spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner widely referred to as Anthroposophy.

Anthroposophy itself would become a lifelong point of contention between Jack and Owen. Barfield was enticed into joining the Anthroposophical Society in the early 1920's after hearing Steiner lecture on the subject.

Steiner's spiritual philosophy was based on mankind being a part of the creative thought behind the development of the world, both spiritually and materially, that man's will was there from creation, and that will took part in all decisions that would influence the evolution of the whole world and man's place in it. Like many spiritualists groups of the day, Steiner introduced meditative techniques involving visualization and concentration of the will in bringing man back into a conscious state whereby he could regain his lost knowledge of those latent creative forces which a devotion to materialism had made him to forget. He believed that when enough people had regained this knowledge of themselves and their capabilities that mankind would enter a new evolutionary stage of consciousness. Anthroposophical teaching, along with various apocalyptical prophecies from the Mayan; the Hopi Indians; and several other sources including the Bible itself, were the basis for the New Age movement of the early 1970's. Steiner was careful not to espouse a pantheistic philosophy that replaced God with a super-consciousness that encompassed every living thing. In his mind, God was still the chief architect, but he allowed man to have a much larger part in running the world than traditional Christianity had taught.

Lewis, however, was not convinced and once described Anthroposophy as "a kind of Gnosticism". The Catholic Church agreed and denounced Anthroposophy condemning it as far back as 1919.

Barfield and Baker would not be the only members of the Anthroposophical Society to come into Lewis' life. While attending Oxford, Barfield would meet another lifelong friend in Cecil Harwood. Harwood and his wife Daphne would later be at the forefront in the development of the Rudolf Steiner Schools. Daphne taught in the schools throughout much of her life while Cecil would give lectures promoting them. These schools would eventually become the basis for the Waldorf Schools still in existence today. Owen Barfield and his wife Maud would stay close friends to the Harwood's throughout all their years. Any friend of the Barfield's was a friend of Lewis.

Jack would engage in lively debates with his Anthroposophical friends during the 1920's even writing a long paper detailing his arguments against Anthroposophy and delivering it to Owen by mail. They jokingly referred to the paper as "The Summa", and it was just a small part of on ongoing debate that would last for years which they called "The Great War". It was a friendly war, however, and by the 1930's Lewis declined debating the subject any further. Instead, he would often focus on the things they had in common and the points in Anthroposophy that he agreed on. His disagreement with Anthroposophy was well-summed up in a short letter to Cecil Harwood in 1926:

No one is more convinced than I that reason is utterly inadequate to the richness and spirituality of real things: indeed this is itself a deliverance of reason. Nor do I doubt the presence, even in us, of faculties embryonic or atrophied, that lie in an indefinite margin around the little finite bit of focus which is intelligence—faculties anticipating or remembering the possession of huge tracts of reality that slip through the meshes of the intellect. And, to be sure, I believe that the symbols presented by imagination at its height are the workings of that fringe and present to us as much of the super-intelligible reality as we can get while we retain our present form of consciousness.
My scepticism begins when people offer me explicit accounts of the super-intelligible and in so doing use all the categories of the intellect. If the higher worlds have to be represented in terms of number, subject and attribute, time, space, causation etc (and thus they always are represented by occultists and illuminati), the fact that knowledge of them had to come through the fringe remains inexplicable. It is more natural to suppose in such cases that the illuminati have done what all of us are tempted to do:—allowed their intellect to fasten on those hints that come from the fringe, and squeezing them, has made a hint (that was full of truth) into a mere false hard statement. Seeking to know (in the only way we can know) more, we know less. I, at any rate, am at present inclined to believe that we must be content to feel the highest truths 'in our bones': if we try to make them explicit, we really make them untruth.
At all events if more knowledge is to come, it must be the wordless and thoughtless knowledge of the mystic: not the celestial statistics of Swedenborg, the Lemurian history of Steiner, or the demonology of the Platonists. All this seems to me merely an attempt to know the super-intelligible as if it were a new slice of the intelligible: as though a man with a bad cold tried to get back smells with a microscope.

This letter, written five years before Jack would proclaim himself a Christian, and at the young age of twenty eight, already shows an admiration for the mystical and a disdain for unrealistic ideologies turned dogma which would become the hallmark of his conversion process.

That men can disagree on religious and theological ideologies to such a degree as did Lewis and his Anthroposophical friends and still remain full of admiration and brotherly love for many decades, is a testament to level headedness, the likes of which one seldom encounters in any religious circle. Lewis dedicated his book, The Allegory of Love, to Owen Barfield, (Lewis sometimes signed his letters to Owen, as—The Alligator of Love). The Barfield's had three adopted children. Lewis was godfather to the second one, Lucy, and dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to her. He dedicated The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the third child, Jeffrey. Lewis dedicated his book, Miracles, to the Harwood's, and was godfather to their son Laurence. And Lewis openly praised Barfield's first book, a novel called, The Silver Trumpet, as did Tolkien. Friendships such as these are rare indeed.


Anonymous said...

offering my thanks for such an insightful blog, as I continue my pursuit of what it is to be a Christian in the world. Thank you.

C W Seper said...

Now that's a nice comment. May all your children be kings and queens.

Michael Bogar said...

Wonderful summary of their relationship. I have a friend who is a brilliant socialist progressive. We too disagree about almost everything, yet our dialogues, mostly through email, are the most valuable stimulants for the making of my own consciousness. Is it any wonder that Jesus told us to love our enemies? They sift us like wheat, making us more ourselves than any 1000 compliments or fawning praise.

CWS said...

"Is it any wonder that Jesus told us to love our enemies?"

That's a wonderful point. Wish I had thought of it.