10. Talking Owen Barfield and the Evolution of Christianity with Mark Vernon

An episode for the Epiphany.

I spoke with author, philosopher, and psychotherapist Mark Vernon about his 2019 book: A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness.

You may have already listened on Mark’s YouTube channel. Great, but also be sure to tune in below for a new introduction.

Mark has a PhD in ancient philosophy, with two other degrees in physics and theology. What brought us together was a mutual interest in the evolution of consciousness; Mark, by way of the Oxford Inkling Owen Barfield, and myself by way of the Swiss cultural philosopher and poet Jean Gebser. Mark read my book and I read his. We agreed that we simply needed to have a chat.

To my knowledge, Gebser and Barfield never actually talked with one another in life, even though their ideas find many significant convergences; the theme of participation, for instance, plays a prominent role in both of their works.

Mark’s A Secret History of Christianity is also a history of religion, which is to say the history of consciousness. His documentation of pivotal transformations in the evolution of religion were highly illustrative.

Take Pneuma, for example:

“Consider the words “wind” and “spirit.” It turns out that in ancient Greek, as in many other old languages, there is a single word that means both “wind” and “spirit.” It’s pneuma in Greek and it’s a relic from previous times. It’s a linguistic fossil from the undifferentiated consciousness of original participation because back then, the material world mingled with the immaterial; outer with the inner; mortal with the immortal; wind with spirit. One word captured what we now think of as two distinct things. It’s why, today, verses like John 3:8, “the pneuma blows where it wishes,” are almost impossible to translate.”

Passages like this one highlight an important recognition that some of the most fundamental assumptions about how human beings encounter, inhabit, and experience the world can undergo creative transformation. This realization, alone, underscores a view of history where the ground itself shifts from time to time. These insights also dovetail quite a bit with what I generally describe as an “integral etymology” equally present in Gebser’s work.

Barfield, by way of Mark’s compelling writing, provides us not only with a history of our consciousness but some important words about its future. Anyone seriously interested in the meaning crisis (via John Vervaeke), or the evolution of religion (like Ken Wilber’s The Religion of Tomorrow) is strongly encouraged to pick this book up.

(For a direct reading of Barfield I recommend starting with Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry).

I mentioned earlier this year in the episode with Dr Becca Tarnas that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth cosmology also has interesting synergy some of Gebser’s ideas, particularly how the consciousness structures unfold (a series of gains and losses as we move further “away” from spiritual origin in time and becoming).

We need a general “The Inklings and the Evolution of Consciousness ft. J. Gebser Remix” episode. Roundtable scholarly nerd-out imminent. Mark, Becca, and I are talking about making it happen. Stay tuned.

Show notes

Mark’s homepage

Featured artwork: The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones