Materialist Idolatry

Materialist Idolatry November 30, 2015

Nearly all our terms for immaterial concepts were originally terms for material objects. Words for “spirit” originally meant “breath” or “wind”; we use “conceive” to refer to a mental act, but it originally signified grasping with the hand (42). 

That has led, Owen Barfield wrote (History, Guilt, and Habit) to the mistaken conclusion that the terms had “only a material reference, or, if you like, only a ‘literal’ meaning” (42). That, Barfield says, is the sin of commission. the sin of omission is that the failure “to observe that modern words that appear to us to have an exclusively material reference, once also had an immaterial one” (42).

Premodern consciousness, in short, was “figurative through and through,” a “consciousness for which for which it was impossible to perceive unfiguratively.” He explains that this “means a kind of consciousness which does not, which cannot, perceive the material world merely as such; which in perceiving its environment, perceives at the same time an immaterial within or or through, or expressed by it. . . . there is no such thing as a merely ‘outer’ world. The outer and material is always, of its own accord, the expression or representation of an inward and immaterial” (46-7). This was the common sense of pre-modern experience, as materialism is the common sense of post-Darwinian consciousness. 

According to this common sense “the immaterial was perceived as well, in the act of perceiving the material – not as something added to it by the use of poetic metaphor” (48). Reality as such was a collection of images. For the more recent outlook, the world instead consists of “things.” And this, Barfield argues, is an essentially idolatrous perception: “the material alone is perceived and felt as real. The sacred images have become sacred things, and it is the things themselves that are worshiped or propitiated. They have in fact become idols” (49).

Barfield is aware that this is sounds sensational. After all. modern people don’t worship their images. Barfield insists that “the difference is not quite so great after all. If the idols are not sacred, the idolatry itself is. The correlative to sacredness is taboo. And if you think that it is not taboo today to question that common sense view of reality, or the validity of that mental picture we have of Darwinian man, just try to get a hearing for it in the media” (49-50).

This idolatry has the effect of cutting off persons from the things that surround them, and Barfield argues that this produces a fundamentally schizoid modern consciousness: “what the self of each of us feels isolated from, cut off from, by its encapsulation in the nakedly physical reality presented to it by the common sense of contemporary culture, is precisely its own existential source” (52). There is a detachment from reality, because “the real world, the whole world, does not consist only of the things of which we are conscious; it consists also of the consciousness and subconsciousness that are correlative to them. They are the immaterial component of the world,” but according to the modern world picture, there is only a little spark of immateriality – if any at all – deep within us. No wonder we feel alienated in this idolatrous world of things.


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