top of page

Owen Barfield and 'Original Participation'

(Some of this blog article is drawn from the blog of Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in the United States, whose continuing work is worth a reading is available here.)

Scholar Owen Barfield was a major influence on C. S. Lewis, and also had an effect on J. R. R. Tolkien persuading both that myth and metaphor had a central place in language and literature. Barfield and Lewis were close friends for 44 years. After Lewis's death, Barfield spoke of his friendship: ‘Now, whatever he was, and as you know, he was a great many things, C. S. Lewis was for me, first and foremost, the absolutely unforgettable friend, the friend with whom I was in close touch for over 40 years, the friend you might come to regard hardly is another human being, but almost as a part of the furniture of my existence.’ Barfield was influential in converting Lewis to Christianity, persuading Lewis to give up materialist realism – the idea that our sensible world is all that there is. Lewis dedicated his 1936 book Allegory of Love to Barfield and wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for his friend's adopted daughter Lucy Barfield and dedicated it to her, also dedicating The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Barfield's son Geoffrey.

Barfield’s developed the idea of original participation - a fully conscious participation with nature - which was similar to the concepts of Radical Orthodoxy, and had origins in the Platonic idea of methexis passed on by Augustine and Aquinas. These ideas suggested a sacramental view of reality - that the world, in other words, was an enchanted place rather than empty of ‘magic’. Both Narnia and Middle Earth resonate with these suggestions.

The famous example is to do with the word ‘spirit’. This comes from Latin, and had an early meaning of ‘breath’ or ‘wind.’ Modern consciousness concludes that this was a metaphor, that the ancients believed that ‘spirit’ was similar to ‘breath’. Barfield argued that would be more proper to say that spirit, breath, wind are all one thing, without any distinction, a perception of the world using ‘original participation.’

Father Freeman relates this to Orthodox services:

God breathes into Adam, and ‘he becomes a living soul.’ Breath/soul/life have a common meaning in a manner that modern people can barely imagine.

In the service of Holy Baptism (Orthodox), the priest breathes on the water. Modern onlookers see this activity as a ritualistic symbol of the Holy Spirit moving over the waters in the Genesis creation account. But the priest also breathes in the face of the one being baptised during the exorcisms. He also breathes over the oil of the catechumens that he blesses. The modern imagination, if it goes so far to accept the notion that objects and people are somehow ‘blessed’ of God, then they imagine this happening in a manner that cannot be seen or described. Actions such as those of the priest are of little importance. Mostly what matters are the words he says. Man speaks, God listens. God hears, thinks about it and answers.

Such a modern imagination actually creates a distance between ourselves and the world in which we live. It is, at its very heart, a denial of the Incarnation of Christ, or a failure to fully engage the actual reality of the Incarnation. In St. John’s account, when Christ gave the Spirit to His disciples, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (20:22). This, like the Last Supper, involves a communion between word, action, reality. They are not three separate things, but one.

As Father Freeman points out, this isn’t just a different, older method of seeing and understanding, it is to do with life as we actually experience it:

It is our consciousness, represented in our use of language, that has changed, not reality. We are, in fact, utterly embodied creatures. The soul is the life of the body, not the ‘ghost in the machine.’ Every thought has a chemical/biological component, and the information we receive from the world around us comes to us in physical form (I include light within this description). At every turn, God has shown Himself to us by means of the very physicality with which He had created us. St. Gregory of Nyssa says, ‘Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.’ This, however, does not mean that we cease to be embodied.

All of us are surrounded by a culture which splits this original participation apart:

Christians within the contemporary world are as likely as anyone to wear the distorting lenses of modernity and notice only a feigned sacramentality. Accepting the materiality of the faith, its full incarnate reality, is probably a greater difficulty than any other facing the Church. It is all the more difficult in that it is generally unaddressed in the writings of the fathers – they lived in a pre-modern world where human consciousness had not been robbed of its perception of reality.

Father Freeman suggests that the modern mind finds it difficult to accept the notion of ‘original participation’ as anything but superstition:

My suggestion is, therefore, to pay attention whenever something seems so, it might be a clue to reality.

Read the rest of Father Freeman’s article here.

Join the Inner Circle Writers' Group on Facebook

The Inner Circle Writers' Group is all about fiction: what it is all about, how it works, helping you to write and publish it. You can keep up to date with live contributions from members, upload your own fiction, enter competitions and so on:
Tag Cloud
bottom of page