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A Secret History of Christianity, by Mark Vernon

20 December 2019

John Saxbee considers an Inkling’s insights

READERS of this book are doubly rewarded. First, a panoramic overview of Judaeo-Christian history reveals a positive prospectus for the revival of faith in our time. Second, the neglected ideas of Owen Barfield, the Inkling overshadowed by J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, are given a new lease of life.

Barfield contended that human experience of life shifted cyclically through three phases over time: “original participation”, “withdrawn participation”, and “reciprocal participation”. Participation refers to the felt experience of participation in life.

“Original participation” dominates when life is experienced as a continuous flow of vitality between what is “me” and “not me”. Barfield writes: “Early man did not observe nature in our detached way. He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer processes.”

“Withdrawn participation” happens when there is a shift from the sense of being immersed in the life of others, nature, and the gods. A person will begin to sense that he or she has an inner life that is relatively speaking his or her own.

“Reciprocal participation” describes a phase when an individual has a sense of belonging to himself or herself while also reflecting the inner life of nature, the cosmos, and God.

The opening chapters trace these phases through the history of Israel, which saw the gradual emergence from “original participation” into a phase of individual self-consciousness, as it became a people of the book, and then had that sense of “withdrawn participation” challenged under the influence of Greek philosophy, especially Socrates — “the Athenian Moses”.

So it was into an emerging phase of “reciprocal participation” that Jesus was born. The full implications of these subtle shifts of consciousness are revealed in the incarnation.

The central two chapters examine Jesus’s teaching, life practices, death, and resurrection through the lens of Barfield’s taxonomy. If the phase of “withdrawn participation” had realised the positive potential of individual self-consciousness, it had also subjugated any sense of participation in nature and the being of God. Jesus manifested how human minds might be reconnected with the world and the divine.

Vernon’s account of how this happens is full of original insights, creative exegesis, and robust challenges to mainstream teaching and preaching. Jesus attracted people back from the perils of pathological individualism and disenchantment. He invited them to embrace the Kingdom of God, offering, here and now, fullness of life whereby “someone can be fully human and fully transparent to God.” Jesus does not so much save us as enable us, by following his example, to save ourselves.

While the first 1500 years of the Common Era represented the high noon of Christianity as “reciprocal participation”, the Reformation initiated a new era of participative withdrawal. It led to the age of science and heightened respect for individuality with many positives worth celebrating, but at the expense of a Christ-like consciousness of meaning-full human interrelationship with creation and Creator.

The time has now come when “we must be mystics” — the theme of the final chapter. Here, Vernon promotes a return to the centrality of religious experience and poetic imagination. The imagination can be revelatory, as it brings new perceptions into being, but it also enables us to participate in the inner being of things and attain to an apprehension of God — “the human I am sharing mystically in the divine I AM . . . finding delight as co-workers, participating in the life of God”.

If Christianity is to recover its former relevance and vitality in contemporary culture, it will be along the lines of Barfield’s model of “reciprocal participation” — and perhaps the future of our planet in the face of climate change requires no less as well.

The title may be just a little melodramatic, and in such an ambitious project there is always the risk of evidence being managed to fit a predetermined template. But, with Barfield as his guide, Vernon makes a convincing case that a Church in decline cannot afford to ignore.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the evolution of consciousness
Mark Vernon
Christian Alternative Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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