Basics of Barfield: Four Pieces

11 June 2020

Owen Barfield was a companion of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, sometimes called “the first and last Inkling” because of his varied career and long life. He had an extraordinarily agile mind that mostly found expression in philology and philosophy rather than the fiction that was the domain of the more popular Inklings like Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Here follows a distillation of some key points from Barfield’s work.

First piece: Language is a forensic record of human consciousness

Human consciousness changes over time. A modern person from New York does not think like a 15th-century English aristocrat, who does not think like a 15th-century Javanese rice farmer, none of whom think even remotely like a 5th-century BC Babylonian astrologer. Some of the differences are cultural, but some differences are more than that.

The development of human thought and consciousness leaves a forensic record in our language. As we develop new concepts and new ways of interacting with or perceiving the world, we also develop vocabulary and expressions to say what we’re thinking.

A simple example of this language/consciousness interplay would be our words for colors. When we don’t have a word for a color, we literally have a harder time seeing it. As soon as we name it, it becomes easier to see. So you have a forward-thinking individual who sees something most people can’t see, gives it a name, and starts teaching other people to see it. If it catches on, your language gets a new color word.

Second piece: Original participation

Ancient languages worked from the outside in. The Hebrew word ruach meant “wind” first, then “breath” — the wind inside the body — and then finally “spirit.” The Greek pneuma and the Sanskrit prana worked the same way. Modern languages, on the other hand, work from the inside out. There’s a whole class of words that have come into existence in modern language that never existed before, as we have come to see the outer world in terms of what goes on inside us.

Originally, human beings saw themselves as immersed in the world, participating in it by taking its qualities into themselves. Thus, in the ancient world, a tribe would name itself after an animal and seek to take on the animal’s traits. Modern people project their traits outward onto the world.  Ancient man would be the bear tribe, channel the spirit of the bear, eat the bear’s heart to gain the bear’s courage; in modern times, we have Smokey the Bear, who walks upright, talks, wears clothes, and carries a shovel. The man no longer seeks to be like the bear; rather, he makes the bear more like himself.

Original participation is nearly dead. We simply can’t see the world in those terms anymore. People who are born into the few societies where the last vestiges of original participation remain can see the world that way, but someone who’s grown up in a modern society has language — and therefore consciousness and categories of thought — that preclude original participation. We can mimic it in a way, but we can’t really go back there. There’s an unbridgeable gap between a modern Wiccan and one of the Druids who tried to assassinate St. Patrick.

But if we are cut off from original participation, we have not yet reached final participation. We can project ourselves onto the world in a psychological sense — hence the cartoon bear wearing pants. But that’s all it is; a portrayal, a fantasy. We do not really participate in the world, and so we are stuck in limbo between original and final participation. We can neither take the world into ourselves to transform us, nor transform ourselves in a way that alters the world; we are cut off from the world, separate from it.

Third Piece: The Twofold Cord

Barfield held that reality is a melange of matter and spirit, inseparably tangled together. Under original participation, nobody saw these as separate things. The idea that the ancient animist believes in a tree spirit would come as a surprise to the animist, who just thinks of it as a single being, a tree– as alive as you and I are. Likewise rocks, animals, and so on. There’s a series of necessary steps to get from there to where we are.

  1. Differentiate matter and spirit.
  2. Focus on matter for the purpose of investigating matter thoroughly.
  3. Come to believe that only matter is real.
  4. Learn that matter is really condensed energy…and that it interacts with and responds to consciousness at the quantum level.
  5. Ooops…

First, we have to differentiate between matter and spirit. The ancient Hebrews started this in Genesis — God formed man from dirt, and breathed the breath of life into him. Man is a melange of these two elements, which are separable only in death — the body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it, as Ecclesiastes says. But while the two elements are not separable in any real way, they certainly are distinguishable. One can talk about them as two things, and this is the first step.

The next step is made by Descartes. Having distinguished objective matter from subjective consciousness, he unravels the two-ply rope of reality for the purpose of an in-depth examination of matter, rigorously excluding any hint of consciousness or the subjective. This is the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, and it gives unparalleled results.  

The third stage is mistaking the Cartesian principle of investigation for a metaphysical reality. People come to believe that anything not subject to scientific examination — i.e., anything not matter — isn’t important, and then that it isn’t even real. At this point, everyone believes that matter is composed of small but solid particles, like a lego building is made up of smaller lego bricks.

The final stage dawns when advances in atomic science show that matter is mostly empty space, gains momentum when Einstein proves that matter is really highly condensed energy, and comes into full bloom when quantum mechanics shows observation changing the behavior of fundamental particles. We have chased our examination of matter as far as we can, and it has bent back round to consciousness.

Meanwhile, the parallel investigation of consciousness, the deep delving into the subjective, has not really been done (particularly in the West). 

Fourth Piece: Final Participation

Barfield saw that in order to continue growing, we would have to undertake that parallel examination of consciousness, and then deliberately re-entwine the two strands to get a fuller understanding of reality. That fuller understanding leads to final participation, in which humanity grows from merely projecting ideas onto the external world to actively interpreting the world in a way that conforms it to the interpretation. Enamored of various techniques for doing this, Barfield missed his opportunity to see what the Bible says in this area. 

The first thing Scripture shows us is that there is a height of authoritative interpretation to which we cannot rise. The world comes pre-interpreted by its Maker; we are invited to explore and interpret under God, not in place of Him. He has invited us to create within His world, but we cannot simply make our own private world. We are not the Creator; we are not imposing our own world on undifferentiated chaos. There are limits we cannot cross.

Second, Jesus showed us in His earthly ministry what final participation can look like. Blind eyes saw, demons fled, the storm was stilled. He commissioned His followers to go out and do two of those things (heal and cast out demons), and set the shaping of the natural world before them as a possibility: “If you had faith as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Maybe deadly hurricanes make landfall because we haven’t the faith to steer them. 

Third, Jesus fulfills the hope of final participation. He is the human being who, uniquely, can consummate Barfield’s hope by ascending the heights reserved for the Creator. By Him all things were made; all things are now upheld by the word of His power; all things come to coherence and completion in Him. 

If you’re interested in digging further into Barfield’s thought, I recommend Saving the Appearances and The Rediscovery of Meaning. His dialogic novel Worlds Apart is a tough read, but very valuable.


“…not even our church.”

10 May 2019

One weekend while I was in massage school, I took an introductory class in Polarity Therapy. Polarity is a big field of study, and we just scratched the surface of most aspects. We did come out with a series of basic energy balancing exercises we could use with clients, though.

The day after the class, I came home and found my wife in serious distress. It was certainly manifesting in physical and emotional discomfort, but there didn’t seem to be anything physical obviously wrong. I wondered if the Polarity balancing session might help. I am automatically suspicious of myself when I think that a new tool I just learned is exactly the thing for someone’s ailment. To a man with a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail, you know?

But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be just like God to give me the tool right before I need it? So I thought, “Well, if it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.”

With nothing to lose, I set up the massage table and got her on it. As always, I began with prayer (I don’t pray out loud if the client’s not up for that, but I always pray). I asked for God to take this time and restore her well-being, then I went to work. The entire sequence had taken about an hour in class. Doing it on my own, it took two, and it was anything but smooth. I had to keep consulting my routine sheet to see what to do next, and the techniques were unfamiliar, so I had to keep deciphering the notes I’d hastily scribbled in the margins to remind me how we’d done each thing in class. Not ideal. Kimberly later described it as “the most boring massage of my life” — Polarity bodywork is on-body, but barely touching for the most part.

But here’s the thing: God answered my prayers. It absolutely worked. When we finished the session, she was calm and collected. The distress — both physical and emotional — was just gone.

We later lay in bed together debriefing. I described what the session had been like for me — the continual reference to my notes interrupting the flow, the battle to keep myself grounded, but also the sensations of energy moving from place to place in her body, where it felt stagnant or blocked, the shifting patterns of heat and cool I felt as I worked with her, and so on. She described her experience, and what she had sensed as I did certain techniques during the session. At one point I was talking, somewhat excitedly, about how it all felt, when she interrupted me and said, “You realize, you can’t talk about this at church. Not even at our church.”

I said, “I know.”

And it was true. Our church (at the time) was probably, of all the churches in our town, the most open to various forms of weirdness in daily life. We strove to be “naturally supernatural,” and we really meant that. But I knew better than to think I could talk about energy work at church.

It was a defining moment for me. I agreed with God when I got into this that I was going to explore, submit to the process and the experiences that He led me into, and never allow myself to ignore something or pretend it didn’t happen just because I didn’t understand it. And I won’t. But at that moment I realized that my agreement with God meant I was going to have to carve out a niche somewhere outside the established American church. At least in the churches I knew, there was simply no place for what God was showing me.

Their loss. God’s doing a lot beyond the walls of the established church, and it’s good. So I’m gonna start talking about it.

The Redemption of Natural Philosophy

9 November 2018

In order to understand the place of science in the world, we need to define some terms.

Natural Philosophy: an investigation into the way the natural world is and the way it works. In ancient times, philosophers weren’t just concerned with intangibles or ethics or human nature, they were also concerned with how the world worked. So Aristotle, for example, expresses a natural philosophy.

Science: born out of natural philosophy, science is a particular way of investigating the natural world that relies on generating ideas about the world, generating predictions from those ideas, testing the predictions through repeatable experiments, and revising the ideas accordingly. Or so it says on the wrapper….

Scientists object to being lumped in with natural philosophy because they consider themselves vastly more rigorous than the natural philosophers, and insofar as they really are more rigorous, they have a point. But then, many scientists also regard naturalism as coextensive with ‘Science,’ and naturalism is a religious conviction not subject to scientific testing — so they’re natural philosophers. They just can’t help themselves. Religion gets into everything, and there is no neutrality.

Special Revelation: God telling us something particular. Sometimes questions about the world do address an area where God has spoken. For example, “Is it true that we’ll die if we eat this particular fruit?” As our experience in Eden demonstrates, when God has spoken to a point, it is wise to take His revelation into account.

False religion: various untrue ideas about spiritual things. The principal goal of these ideas is to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to keep Yahweh out of human awareness.

We are obliged to hear special revelation. What God has shown us must be taken into account, period.

We are obliged to disregard false religion. We may not bow down to or in any wise serve idols, and ideas that exist to turn us away from Yahweh are to be rejected out of hand.

Science and natural philosophy, however, are a different matter, and have to be handled differently. Science and natural philosophy are always tied in with an overall worldview, and it matters which one they’re tied in with. Carl Sagan’s science is no more to be trusted than Lao Tzu’s natural philosophy — but no less, either. To the extent that they have observed the natural world accurately, they must be recognized. Paul requires it: “Whatever things are true…think on these things.” To the extent that they have failed to glorify Yahweh and be thankful, they have exalted themselves against the knowledge of God, and they must be cast down. Since we have to do both of these things, we are simply not permitted to discard them, nor to swallow them whole. We are required to seek the redemption of science and natural philosophy, to see these disciplines brought into obedience to Christ.

In the Western world, we like to lump science on the side of the angels, and demonize natural philosophy. Christians have adopted this into our theological schema very uncritically, such that Western medicine is appropriate for Christians (despite its pronounced tendency to murder babies) and acupuncture is not, because it’s not scientific and tied up with Taoism.

Well, sure it’s tied up with Taoism. Good thinkers always seek a consistent, integrated view of everything, and Chinese natural philosophers didn’t keep their Taoism locked in a box whilst they were observing the natural world. Whaddaya expect? Nor did Carl Sagan keep his atheism locked in a box when he looked through a telescope — but I don’t know even one Christian who thinks that means we should ignore what he saw. If we’re prepared to accept insights about the natural world from the round-eyed observer, then why are we so balky about the slant-eyed ones?

Frankly, I think it’s simple xenophobia. Our M.D. doesn’t believe that we have a soul, and that doesn’t bother us at all, because we’re used to it. An acupuncturist says something about yin and yang, and we lose our minds — without even stopping to find out what he meant. As communication improves and the world comes back together again, we need to learn to listen carefully rather than simply rejecting unfamiliar things out of hand. We might learn something.

Steps Toward Recovery

2 November 2018

If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.

We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.

We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.

We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?

We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.

We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?

We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.

We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.

We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.

The World is Magic

19 October 2018

I am a Christian. I believe the Bible, all the way through.

Therefore, of necessity, I believe in magic. I believe in the bad kind — which I steer well clear of, of course — the witch at En Dor calling up the dead, the prophets of Ba’al cutting themselves to get their god’s attention, sacrificing a living baby to sexual freedom Molech, and so on. Vile stuff.

But I also believe in the good kind: multiplying bread and fish, walking on water, parting the seas, calling down fire or food from the clear blue sky.

And not all of it is “nice.” Moses’ serpent devours the serpents made by the Egyptian sorcerers. Elijah stops the rain, and won’t bring it back for three whole years. Walk around the walls and shout, and Jericho’s defenses crumble. Moses holds his staff over the battlefield, and Israel prevails. Joshua orders the sun and moon to stand still so Israel can crush her enemies.

Why does this sort of thing work?

A better question might be: why not? The whole world is spoken into existence to start with. It didn’t evolve in place by inexorable natural process; the world is magic from the word go. (Actually, the word was “Light!”) The things which are seen are not made of the things which are visible.

Which is to say that the materialist conception of the physical world is wrong, all the way down. It’s not true “as far as it goes,” but missing an additional layer of spiritual truth. Richard Dawkins is wrong about Newtonian physics, he’s wrong about quantum physics, he’s wrong about the nature of the rock under his feet and the sun over his head and the air in his lungs. He says those things are just there, matter in motion. We know those things are words. They were spoken into existence by God and continue to be upheld by the Word of His power, and that is a difference that goes all the way down.

For what it’s worth, here’s some other good discussions on the subject:

DRTV: It’s a Magical World

N D Wilson and Doug Wilson on Magic in Literature

N D Wilson and Doug Wilson on Magic, Part 2

A Cautionary Letter

7 September 2018

The Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi
Horus Street
Pithom, Egypt

Aaron ben-Amram
Goshen, Egypt

Dear Mr. ben-Amram,

We thank you for notifying us about the practices in which you and your brother Moses are engaged. In these turbulent times, many people have grown confused about the worship of the Most High. The Discernment Committee exists to educate Israel about the proper worship of the Almighty, and to expose the many pagan practices that have infiltrated the congregation of Israel.

Unfortunately the practices of your brother fall into this category. Upon review of our history, we find no precedent for any of the so-called “revelations” that your brother brings to the table. The God of Abraham spoke to Abraham face to face, as a man speaks to his friend, and to the other patriarchs in dreams. There is no precedent whatsoever for the Almighty speaking out of a burning bush, still less some paranormal bush that was “burning but not consumed,” whatever that means.

Moreover, the “miracles” that your brother brings to validate his “revelations” are the furthest thing from the sort of uplifting and worshipful miracles that might genuinely befit the Most High. These signs your brother brings — turning his hand leprous, turning water into blood—are disturbing, morbid, and frankly just bizarre. And again, there is just no precedent of the Almighty doing such things.

As to the matter of turning sticks into snakes, well…if I might be frank, a Levite of your education ought to know better. You know our troubled history with the serpent, and the very idea of validating some sort of connection with the Almighty by turning your walking stick into the symbol of Satan…well, surely you’re not that tone deaf. This is not the work of the God of Abraham.

Moreover, our research indicates that this snake-stick demonstration is a practice of the Egyptian sorcerers Jannes and Jambres, among other local occultists. These men are worshippers of a variety of false gods, entities that you and I know to be demonic in nature. Surely you can see that participating in such an occult practice opens a wide door to the demonic in your own life, and we would urge you to immediately repent of and renounce your involvement in this grave sin.

If you’ll forgive a personal note here, I knew your late father, may he rest in the bosom of Abraham, and he would be deeply grieved to see his sons carrying on in such a manner. Moses always was a bit impulsive, so perhaps it’s understandable. But for you, Aaron, to get caught up in this…I just don’t know what to say. You and your sister Miriam have always been the sensible ones. May the Most High forgive me for saying so, but I’m honestly glad your father didn’t live to see you getting carried away by Moses’ nonsense. Amram was always rightly proud of you, and this would have just broken his heart.

But recriminations won’t solve anything, and we need to find a way to move forward. I’m afraid the best-case scenario here is that your brother has serious mental health issues. Four decades alone in the desert would be a strain for anyone, and it’s not implausible that his frustrated lifelong desire to be the liberator of Israel finally caused a psychotic break. As awful as it sounds to say so, I sincerely hope this is the case. Our people have always made excellent psychiatrists, and there is some hope that with lengthy therapy, your brother could be delivered from his delusions and return to a somewhat normal life. If indeed they are delusions. I sincerely hope they are, because the alternative is to take your brother’s account at face value.

In that case, some entity known as “I am” spoke to your brother from a burning bush and induced him to perform these morbid and bizarre pagan practices. Given the pagan associations of these practices, we can only conclude that the entity known as “I am” is a demon, and for your own safety, we would urge you to have no further contact with your brother while he is under the influence of this unclean spirit.

We maintain a resource list of mental health professionals and exorcists for concerned families in your unfortunate situation. Please find it enclosed. I urge you to consult with one or more of them regarding next steps for your brother.

We pray that the Almighty’s mercy will cover you and your family during this very difficult time.

Yochanan ben-Zacharias
Communications Director
Discernment Committee of the Tribe of Levi

Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 4: Cashing It Out

20 January 2013

So what do we learn from the tales of Marcus, Daljeet, Chao, and John?

A perfect cosmology is reserved for heaven. In the meantime, it’s okay to use whatever knowledge you have, subject to the Lordship of Christ, to do good in the world. It is better to heal people by balancing the four humors to the glory of Christ than it is to sit on your thumbs and let them suffer.
Every cosmology has some cleaning up to do. The evolutionary cosmology John was taught in the modern West is no more godly than the pre-Christian Greek, Indian, or Chinese cosmologies.
A historically conscious conservative will point out that the roots of the Western scientific cosmology are not pagan, but Christian. He’ll be right, too. But whatever it was in 1600, it’s not Christian now. This same conservative will protest that it is too Christian in its root presuppositions, and proceed to back it up. (See Pearcey and Thaxton, The Soul of Science for an excellent argument of this kind.) That’s all true, but it’s kinda irrelevant at the level we’re talking about. The fact remains that a guy like John can enter college as a secular pagan, and leave med school the same way, and neither he nor his instructors think Christianity has anything to do with it. It is, for all intents and purposes, a pagan education that produces pagan graduates. In fact, as we well know, a significant number of Christian kids that follow that same educational track lose their Christian faith as a direct result of their education. So let’s not be prattling on about how it’s all Christian at its roots. Not so you’d notice, it’s not.

So let’s cash that out in terms of some contemporary problems.

May a Christian go to college, then to med school? Is it lawful?
I believe we are all prepared to say yes. For some believers who are weak in their faith to start with, it may not be wise to subject themselves to John’s educational track, but it is lawful. We would have no problem with a strong Christian undertaking the task — we would just tell him to “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” Many do, and there are some outstanding Christian Western medical doctors today.

Is it okay for a Christian to become an acupuncturist?
Why not? Well, says the conservative Christian, clearing his throat, for starters, the whole thing is based on a pagan worldview. Of course, that same conservative Christian will cheerfully take out a second mortgage to get his kid through Western med school — why the double standard? Well, let’s be honest, the problem is more xenophobia than it is theology, isn’t it? We’re fine with homegrown paganism — it’s that foreign stuff we can’t stand.

Let’s just admit from the outset that a Christian who is going into a medical field will have to weed out the paganism intrinsic to his education — in 2nd century Alexandria, 6th century Punjab, 9th century China, or 21st century America. But this is just to say that the Kingdom of God has not yet come; shall all Christians refuse to be doctors on that account? Of course not.

We look forward to the day when this is not the case, when it is impossible to attend an anatomy or physiology class without hearing the professor occasionally break into a spontaneous song of worship as he lectures on the genius of Yahweh’s design of the eye, or the Krebs cycle, or the biotensegrity structure of the spine. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

In the meantime, Jesus rules everything, and therefore it is our Christian duty to retake that territory, to root out the paganism, and to subject the practice of medicine to the service of Christ its king.

As no less an authority than Augustin once put it:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel.”

In sum, when a pagan has a truth that he is setting to a pagan use, we must not shrink from that truth because a pagan has it. The devil has planted his flag on that truth and claimed it for his own, but he is the Father of Lies, and we must not believe him. Instead, we must take that truth from him, and put it to its right use: the glory of Christ and the manifestation of His Kingdom here on earth. “Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.”

So once we’ve set aside our xenophobic aversion to the Yellow Peril and embraced our Christian duty to reclaim any truth for the service of Christ, what objections do we have left?

Mostly what we have is concerns about whether oriental medicine works, or whether it’s all just so much hokum. These concerns break into two categories. First, are the descriptions true? For example, is there such a thing as chi, and does it really run through channels in the body? This question is more complicated than it first appears, because Chinese medicine simply doesn’t approach the subject the same way Western medicine does. The Chinese concept of ‘organ’ is about a bundle of related functions, not about a certain physical structure. There’s a good argument to be made that “chi” doesn’t even mean “energy” to start with, and that it’s meant as a metaphor rather than something that literally flows along a certain channel. And so on. It’s a very different language and culture, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done before most Westerners, even serious investigators, will be ready to say that we understand what the classical texts of Chinese medicine are really telling us about the body.

Second, whether the descriptions are true or not, do the therapies work? The therapy can work even if we can’t explain why it works, or even if our explanation is completely wrong. Ptolemy was wrong about why the moon went around the sun, but he could still predict the next eclipse. Of course, of course, we’ve heard the occasional story of a near-miraculous acupuncture healing. Even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then, and every supposed therapy has the occasional spontaneous healing. Unless the treatment is downright lethal, if you subject enough people to it, someone is bound to get well eventually. But does it predictably, repeatably work? Do the therapies of Oriental medicine actually cause people to get well?

That’s a good question, and it’s far too big to tackle in a blog entry. For one thing, asking “Does Oriental medicine work?” is like asking “Does Western medicine work?” What are we talking about? X-ray imaging? Angiogram? Setting a broken bone? Ritalin? Thalidomide? Oriental medical practice, like Western medical practice, is a compendium of therapies. Undoubtedly it will be the case that some are effective and others are not. Both Chinese and Western doctors, for example, set broken bones so that they will heal correctly. Clearly setting broken bones is an efficacious therapy. But what about acupuncture for the constellation of symptoms that a Western doctor would call diabetes? Will that work?

Good question. Of course, it’s still too general. “Does needling the Yi Shu point in thus and such a manner alleviate the symptoms associated with diabetes?” might be a better question. As it happens, there is evidence that it does, but that’s not the point.

The point is that when we’ve passed up all the theological objections to participation, and come down to the simple question of whether or not it works, we have come to a place where good Christians may disagree. When a devoted Christian who believes in the efficacy of acupuncture gives his life to alleviating suffering through acupuncture, there is no ground for calling his Christian faithfulness into question. Should it turn out that he’s scientifically wrong about this treatment or that one (or even about acupuncture as a whole), that’s bad, of course — but it’s no worse than a Christian Western doctor prescribing leaches in 1785, or giving a pregnant woman thalidomide for her morning sickness in 1959, or prescribing Baycol in 2005. Or giving Ritalin to a little kid today — but there I go, injecting questions of efficacy into the discussion again. Would we subject that doctor to church discipline for prescribing Ritalin? Of course not — good Christians can disagree on that. Seems it’s not only Oriental medicine that’s controversial, eh?

Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 3: John from Boston

13 January 2013

This is the third post in the Alternative Cosmologies series. As with the first and second posts, the following tale is fictional. Sort of.

John had the world by the tail. He graduated at the top of his class from a prestigious prep school. Harvard was the only college he applied to, and he got in easily. At Harvard, he majored in all the socializing that had been denied him at his all-male prep school. He also got a degree in biology, and graduated at the top of his class again — the third straight generation in his family to do so. Having lived in Boston his whole life, John wanted to get out a little — far enough away to be really away, but close enough to come home for a Red Sox game if he felt like it. With grades as good as he had, he could apply to med school just about anywhere he liked, and he settled on Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he continued to excel, eventually specializing in cardiology.
When he finished school, John wanted to return to Boston, but there were no openings he was really interested in at the time, and he ended up in Omaha for a few years waiting for the right position to open up.
John had…ahem…socialized quite a bit while he was in school, but he always told himself and his various female playmates that there was no time for anything serious. Suddenly he found himself with a real job, whole days off with no exams to study for, in a strange city too far from home. He began to date a bit more seriously. He had always pictured himself marrying another young, upwardly-mobile type like himself, but to his great surprise he fell in love with a waitress named Sally who worked at the diner across the street from the hospital. Their wedding was an interesting cultural experience for both families, but everyone was civil enough. After a couple years, Sally had their first child, a boy, and a year after that, she was pregnant with their second. Meanwhile, the right position opened up in Boston and they moved back to his hometown.

At first Sally was thrilled. She had lived in Omaha her whole life, and she had wanted out since she was in high school. She loved Boston. She loved the museums, the ballet, the swan boats at the Public Garden, taking walks along the Charles River — all of it. John was in heaven. He had his dream job — well, not his dream job yet, since he wanted to be head of cardiology at the hospital — but he was in a good position for his age and experience, his wife was happy, he adored his kids, and he was back home where he belonged. Everything was grand.

But after the birth of their third child, Sally started taking Xanax. John’s family was civil enough, but they weren’t close with Sally, and she was having trouble making friends in the circles John moved in. They had plenty of money, so she could hire a sitter and go to a museum exhibit opening or the ballet, but Boston’s rich cultural life didn’t compensate for her total lack of friends. Desperately lonely, Sally began spending long afternoons on the phone with her mother, sister, and cousins back in Omaha. One night over dinner, she casually asked John if he’d ever thought about moving back to Omaha.

John laughed. “Of course not, baby,” he said. “I never would have gone to Omaha in the first place if I’d been able to get a decent position here at the time. Worked out well for me, though,” he said, grinning at her. “I’m glad I went.”
“Me too, darling,” Sally said, and smiled, and John was so happy with his life that he didn’t notice that her smile never quite reached her eyes.

He noticed a few months later, in June, when Sally took the kids on a six-week vacation to Omaha. He talked to Sally on the phone every night, and he could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Sally and the kids came back in July, but it wasn’t the same. John would get home from work and he could tell that she’d been crying.
“What is it, baby?” he would ask, and Sally would just shake her head and change the subject.

One day in October, John came home and found a tearstained note on the table. “I love you, but I can’t do this anymore. I’m going back to Omaha. I know you’ll never be happy anywhere but Boston, but I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m so lonely all the time. I still love you, and I want you to be part of our lives. We’ll work something out about custody for the kids. I’m taking them with me right now, but I’m not trying to keep them from you, truly I’m not. I just don’t want them to think I’m abandoning them. I love you more than I can say. I’m so sorry.”

John sat at the table for a long, long time.

Eventually, he got up, put on his coat, and went out. He had no idea where he was going. He just wandered. It was something to do other than sit at the table and stare at that damned note. For a long time he walked, taking turns at random. After a while, he realized he was tired — so tired — and cold, and he looked around to see where he was. It wasn’t the sort of neighborhood he would ever go into, but he was across the street from a little church. The lights were on, so he went in.

The priest spotted John right away — his coat cost more than any of the parishioners would make in a month. When the service was over, the place emptied out, leaving John sitting alone in the back. The priest, a little Irishman with red cheeks and a boxer’s crooked nose, came back and sat down next to John. He’d been at his work a long time, and he knew that look of desperation. So he just sat silently for a while, being present and feeling John slowly unwind.

When the time seemed right, he turned to John. “So what brings a man like you into my poor little parish church on a 15-degree night, hmmm?”

John tried to lay out the situation rationally, but he started crying as soon as he opened his mouth to talk, and the story tumbled out in pieces. John could never explain how it happened, but he slowly became aware that he was not just talking to the priest — there was a third person with them in the conversation. To this day, John doesn’t remember anything the priest said, but he will swear that Jesus was there with him, hearing his pain and comforting him.
John became a Christian that day. He didn’t become a Roman Catholic — it would have scandalized his (culturally) Presbyterian family — but he would never forget that on the day that he called out to God, God came near to him.

Being a Christian didn’t fix John’s life. At least, not right away. When he didn’t follow her to Omaha within a few months, Sally filed for divorce. But John got some good help, and he did move to Omaha, giving up a promising career in Boston to be near his family, and it didn’t take much effort to persuade Sally to tear up the divorce papers and come back to him. Like Marcus, Daljeet and Chao, John continued in the calling he was in when Christ called him, and became a Christian doctor.

Of course, John’s textbooks said nothing about balancing bodily humors, as Marcus’ or Daljeet’s did. Nor, like Chao’s textbooks, did they teach him to balance the meridian system, nor did they teach him the Daoist history of the universe, in which the emptiness gave birth to fulness which gave birth to Taiji which gave birth to yin and yang which gave birth to the five elements and the whole universe from there. No, his textbooks talked about the Big Bang and evolution, and like Chao it took him a while to think that through and realize that the Bible tells a different story. That aside, John remained primarily concerned with keeping his patients’ hearts healthy, and he delivered the best care he could, prescribing appropriate medications, encouraging healthy diets and exercise, and referring patients for surgery when necessary.

Being in a different sort of society, John was not professionally ostracized for his conversion to Christianity, but he had his own struggles with the paganism in his profession. Two floors down in the same hospital where he worked, they performed abortions. John had been trained that a fetus isn’t really alive in the same way as a person, but one day he ran across Psalm 139, and the more he meditated on it, the more troubled he became. He had certainly loved his own children in the womb, he realized — why wouldn’t God love all children in the womb? And if He did, how could it be right to kill them?

John is still struggling with what it means to be a Christian doctor in the contemporary American medical system. He doesn’t like working in a hospital where abortions are performed, but he doesn’t really know what to do about it, and somehow picketing the third floor doesn’t seem realistic. Some days he doesn’t feel like he’s got any answers; other days, one of his colleagues will corner him and ask him why he handled a particular situation the way he did, or why he’s just a bit different generally, and he’ll have a chance to share Christ. Sally came to Christ a few years ago, followed by all the kids — there are four now — and John loves to gather up the family when he gets home from work and tell them about the doctor or nurse that he got to share Christ with. He’ll tell the story of the conversation, and then they will all pray together for his coworker to come to Christ. John feels pretty good, those days.

John will live with that tension for the rest of his career. He will hope to pass on his accumulated wisdom on the matter to at least some of his children, but none of them will go into medicine. That will be a bitter disappointment to him, but he will make his peace with it in time, and be happy that his children are happy in vocations that suit them. John will live to a ripe old age, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. To his surprise and delight, his oldest granddaughter will be interested in medicine, and John will live long enough to see her enter med school before he dies.

Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 2: Daljeet the Punjabi and Chao of Xian

5 January 2013

The following tales are fictional. Sort of.

Last week we considered the story of Marcus, a physician in second-century Alexandria. Let us consider a set of similar situations briefly.

Daljeet was a physician in the Punjab region of India in the seventh century A.D. Like Marcus, he was well respected in his profession, and like Marcus, in his middle age he converted to Christianity. In his case it was not a miraculous healing, but the simple witness of a spice trader to whom he had extended his hospitality. When he heard the story of Jesus, Daljeet felt like a gong had been struck inside his chest, like he had known the story all along, and had just been waiting for someone to remind him. Like Marcus, he ceased his offerings to pagan gods, but continued as best he could in his profession. Of course, his textbooks were the Charaka Samhita and the Sustruta Samhita instead of Hippocrates and Galen, and he was interested in balancing the three ayurvedic humors (wind, bile and phlegm) instead of Hippocrates’ four humors. Daljeet had a much greater focus on the medicinal qualities of different kinds of food than Marcus, and he was just as likely to prescribe a certain menu for his patients as he was to prescribe a certain herbal medicine — although he could do that as well. Daljeet also had a surgical practice extending from stitching up wounds and removing foreign objects to a form of cataract surgery and even cesarean section birthing if necessary. Daljeet also believed that treating the physical body was insufficient — what a person thought and believed, the words that were said to him and the conditions he lived in could cause as much damage as any injury or poison. So he would do his best to treat the soul as well — and when he came to the Great Physician, he found that his ability to treat the soul took a great leap forward.
Far from suffering because of his conversion to Christianity, Daljeet’s practice saw even more success in the year following his conversion. The stories of near-miraculous healing spread throughout the region, and Daljeet was careful to tell anyone who would listen that it was not Daljeet the doctor, but Jesus of Nazareth, the Great Physician, who was responsible for these healings. The community around Daljeet was at once amazed and scandalized. No one could offend the gods as Daljeet was doing and hope to escape their wrath, and yet, it seemed there was a new incredible healing every few days. If the gods were angry, they also seemed content to sit back and let Daljeet heal people. The stunned amazement persisted for almost a year after Daljeet had been very publicly baptized by the spice trader.
Then one day in the marketplace an overzealous devotee of one of the offended deities attacked Daljeet from behind and stabbed him to death. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late, and Daljeet died before they could carry him back home.


In the eighth century A.D., a bishop of the Church of the East fell ill while traveling through central China, in what is now Shaanxi province. He was taken to the city of Xian and treated by a doctor there, a man named Chao. The bishop was only there a week, but he struck up an acquaintance with Chao, and the two men corresponded for some years and became friends. Eventually persuaded by his friend’s humility and devotion, Chao became a Christian. He too remained in his profession. His friendship with the bishop gave him access to the Scriptures, so of course he realized that the Taoist story of how the world came to be was false, and he began to adjust his thinking accordingly. Like Marcus and Daljeet before him, he set aside his false gods and worshiped only the true and living God.
Also like Daljeet and Marcus, Chao was interested in restoring his patients to bodily harmony, but he did not seek to do this through balancing bodily humors, but rather by massaging or needling points on their bodies in order to balance the blood and chi that flowed through their organs and each organ’s associated meridians, as he had learned from his medical textbooks, The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, and others.
Also like the other two doctors before him, Chao believed that illness could have a spiritual cause like a witch’s curse or a malign deity — such things were not unheard of — but that in general illness was a natural process best treated by natural means. Doctors in his tradition had believed this since before the Yellow Emperor’s Classic was written seven centuries before. In addition to massage and acupuncture, Chao had recourse to a wide array of herbs and foods to address different illnesses, and he also could prescribe certain exercises for his patients that would have the effect of strengthening the function of a weak organ.
Chao’s conversion was not dramatic. Even after he confided in his friend the bishop that he had come to believe in Jesus, it took some time before he ceased making sacrifices, and more than a year before he worked up the courage to be baptized into the Church. Rejected by his family and community as a result of his baptism, Chao lost everything, and one day showed up knocking on the door of his friend the bishop, homeless, penniless and ashamed, with nowhere to go. He had nothing but the clothes on his back, his needles, and a few herbs. The bishop took him in, and from that day forward, the two men were inseparable. The bishop traveled to encourage the churches under his care, and wherever he went, Chao would go and treat the sick. “I will share Jesus with their spirits,” the bishop would say to Chao, “and you see what Jesus will do for their bodies.”
After some years, the bishop felt himself called to go up into the mountains of Tibet as a missionary. He told Chao that it would be quite dangerous, and that he ought to stay behind. “My friend,” Chao said, “If it is going to be dangerous, you had better take a doctor with you.” The bishop took several months to anoint a successor and set his affairs in order, and then, commissioned by the people of the diocese, the two men set off on the long and dangerous journey. No one knows if they ever made it to Tibet, and if they did, how they fared there. The two men were never heard from again.

Alternative Cosmologies and the Christian, Part 1: Marcus the Alexandrian

29 December 2012

The following fictional tale is part of a thought experiment that will take a few weeks to develop properly. Stick with me; I promise it will be worth it.

Marcus was a doctor in Alexandria during the second century A. D. His internal medicine practice was largely concerned with balancing the four bodily humors (fluids) — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile — in order to prevent or cure disease. He had diligently studied the writings of Hippocrates, Galen and others, and understood that disease was a natural process which a doctor could only assist. In order to ameliorate the disease and assist in hurrying it along toward healing, Marcus used massage, herbs, and other methods.

A cold, for example, was the result of an overabundance of phlegm, perhaps brought about through overexposure to the cold night air. The cold air cooled the lungs, and thereby the heart, which is the very center of a person. Attempting to protect the lungs, the body produced a great abundance of phlegm, which now needed to be brought back into balance with the other three humors. Marcus knew which herbs to use internally, which to apply as poultices, and so on. Marcus also understood which gods the patient ought to make offerings to, but he had noticed over his years of practice that the gods tended to ignore minor cases and preferred large offerings in any case. If the cold progressed to pneumonia, he would tell his patients, that was the time to invoke the gods — and in that event, it was best not to be cheap about it.

In addition to his skills with herbs and practical theology, Marcus was also a capable surgeon. He could remove tumors, treat hernias, and on occasion would even drill a small hole in a patient’s skull to relieve pressure and headaches. Some time in the army had also given him ample practice closing wounds and removing arrowheads.

Marcus was not always successful — no doctor is — but in general he enjoyed a good rate of success and there were a number of people in the city who attributed their continued life and good health to his ministrations.

And then, at the age of 45, in the middle of his career, Marcus himself became sick with the plague, and try as he might, nothing he did would cure him. One of his servants, who happened to be a Christian, begged him to allow Christian holy men to come and pray for his healing. At first Marcus refused. He was a doctor, learned in all the medicine of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Persians! What might some fleabitten hermit following that Nazarene criminal have to offer him? But the servant continued, plying him with story after story of how people were healed through prayer, begging him not to be so stubborn, and by this means eventually prevailed. The servant ran out of the house and shortly returned with a group of men that he described as the elders of his ecclesia. They surrounded the bed, anointed Marcus with oil, sang some hymns and prayed for healing in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Despite his doubts, Marcus was instantly healed.

Marcus didn’t know what to do. Of course, he had to become a Christian — and wouldn’t his friends think that was entertaining — but beyond that, he didn’t know what he would do for a living. How could he go on being a doctor when he couldn’t heal himself? How could he prescribe herbs when it had been the prayers of a servant, a rug merchant, a field laborer and a potter that had healed him? Not knowing what to do, he went back to the men who healed him and asked them.

“Let each man remain in the same calling in which he was called,” they told him. Someone named St. Paul had written this in their scriptures many years before. He should remain a doctor. After all, one of Paul’s companions, St. Luke the evangelist, had been a doctor, and had not St. Paul himself referred to him as “Luke, the beloved physician” in his letter to Colosse? If St. Luke had remained in the profession, then surely Marcus could also. Of course, the men cautioned him, he must have nothing more to do with other gods. The idols of the Greeks and Romans were demons, and although they could work miracles of their own, it was for the purpose of damning souls to hell. From now on, Marcus must serve only Yahweh — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Marcus left the conversation a little fuzzy on whether he was serving one God or three, but he got the general idea. He continued practicing medicine, prescribing herbs for the balancing of the four bodily humors, performing surgery when it was called for, and commending prayer to Jesus Christ as the Great Physician who can heal any disease, no matter how small or how desperate. Marcus was subject to considerable mockery for this, and was eventually kicked out of the trade guild over it, because he was unwilling to participate in the guild sacrifices to pagan gods. Many of his patients refused to see him any longer, and a number of the merchants he depended upon for supplies refused to do business with him, for fear of the guild. But Christ had taught him, “Freely you have received; freely give” — and so although he sometimes lacked for patients who could pay, he never lacked for patients, and the Lord always seemed to supply him with just enough of the necessary herbs and implements to get the job done.

Over time, several young Christian men came to him to learn. They were unable to apprentice themselves to anyone in the guild, because like him they were unwilling to participate in the guild’s pagan sacrifices. However, Marcus was happy to teach them all he knew. Each of them spent at least ten years with him, learning all the healing properties of each herb, how to balance the bodily humors, how and when to use each surgical implement, and much more — everything he knew about the practice of medicine, and as he grew in his Christian faith, everything he knew about serving the Great Physician as well. By the time he died at a ripe old age, there were five capable doctors, unrecognized by the guild, who took his place and continued his work, each man expert in his craft and a diligent servant of God.