The Glass of Vision Lecture 4: The Metaphysician’s Image


In the last lecture, Farrer makes a case for images in the form of metaphors, as the locus of revelation in the broadest sense. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the specific events then that these images, many of them very ancient, interact with. In this lecture he asks how we might better understand the reality behind these imaged events. “Does God feed his saints with nothing but figures of speech?” The development of an answer to this question leads to a general discussion of the nature of metaphors in human endeavor.

Farrer distinguishes between problems and mysteries. Problems are potentially solvable puzzles and are the usual domain of the various natural sciences, but they can also be approached by philosophers. Information about the world is gathered and analyzed through the use of appropriate instruments (physical or conceptual), continuously refined, which yield answers to specific questions. Science, especially, is often narrowly focused and can only provide the kind of information that its tools and limited questions are designed to extract. Mysteries, on the other hand, are more multidimensional and holistic. They are the so-called ‘big questions’ of life, and call forth human awe and wonder. What is it to love? What does it mean to by subject to time? What are the forces of nature? What is consciousness? Sheer amazement or perhaps poetic exploration are possible responses, but “where the attitude of passive respect combines with a rigorous demand for understanding, metaphysical activity will appear.”

The understanding that Farrer has of metaphysical mysteries precludes any kind of finality like that of puzzles. “Mysteries are not to be solved but (always inadequately) described.” There are no pre-selected tools that can be used to understand complex processes and objects in their fullness. Often multiple images are used to make a composite picture. Images are re-arranged until they seem to fit with other things that we know and with other images. Metaphysics is a systematic elaboration of our thinking and wondering about the world, but in the realm of mystery there are no hard rules to guide us. We go from images to images, term to term, in “irreducible analogizing”. George Lakoff, in his Metaphors We Live By (2003), documents the truth of this assertion in great detail. In fact, Lakoff’s concept of ‘imaginative rationality‘ has a great deal in common with what I think Farrer is getting at here.

After this excursus, Farrer returns to the questions that preoccupy him as a theologian. The total object of belief, like mysteries, is a vast divine process, but there is also a curtain between divine agency and effect. This veil “is not blank. It is painted with the image of God, and God himself painted it, and made it indelible with his blood…” but our experience of it has only begun in Jesus and is therefore partial and dimly understood. The metaphysician may seem to have a relatively easier task than the theologian.

Neither of these men, it is true, can get behind the imaged form of statement, but the metaphysician’s object of study is absolutely given to him in his own existence and in its environing conditions: it is about these things that his analogical statements are made, and he has such an awareness ofthe realities he describes as to be able to feel the relative adequacy of different analogies to them. Not so the scriptural theologian. He has got something, indeed, of given reality to which some of his statements refer, that is to say, the work of grace in his own soul.But not even with regard to this is he in the same position as the metaphysician. For the work of grace in one’s own soul, taken as something simply given, and apart from the transcendent realities to which it is believed to be related, is not even recognizable as the work of grace. So the theologian cannot simply feel the adequacy or inadequacy of the revealed images to the object they describe: for he has not that object. He cannot criticize the revealed images from his acquaintance with their object: he can only confront them with one another.

In conclusion, metaphysical and theological contemplation of mysteries are a grasping after unmeasurable realities that meet us under the conditions of our finitude. They are the natural extensions of human wonder that go beyond intellectual problem-solving within systems. Theology has taken on an enormous task, one comparable to metaphysics, but with a different kind of object. It attempts to interpret all of reality as related to a single idea–God. And that task is the subject of the fifth lecture.


The Glass of Vision Lecture 3: Images and Inspiration

This post is the third in a reading of Austin Farrer’s lecture from 1948 (lecture 1, lecture 2).

So far, Farrer has led us through a general discussion of how we might understand the relation of the supernatural and natural as not entailing a metaphysical duality of mutual exclusion. The stated goal of this current lecture is to “make a fresh examination…about the form and nature” of Christian revelation, particularly as it touches on scriptural writing and authority. Farrer wants to find a middle way between two perspectives: revelation as given in the form of propositions, and revelation as the best memories and understandings of those immediately impacted by the original events. The problem with the first is that it entails the “senselessly duplicated account of revelation” known as dictation theory. The problem with the second is that the substance of revelation “has an uncanny trick of evaporating once its accidents of expression are all removed.” The choice is still a contemporary one: dictated propositions or divine events relayed second-hand.

Farrer begins to look for a path by noting the commonplace ‘Barthian’ insight that, for Christianity, Jesus is the primary revelation. If Jesus is the revelation of the divine coexisting with the human, then this is a clue about the meaning of revelation. Revelation, in its truest sense, is the self-revelation of Jesus. So what does Jesus reveal?

The primacy of the Head in revelation is seen in two things. First, the self-giving of the divine mind to man is fully actualized in the personal existence of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the communication to mankind in general of the human-divine mind of Jesus Christ is begun by Jesus Christ, who by that beginning lays down all further lines of development. Development is development, and neither addition nor alteration.

We have here a standard expression of Christocentricism. The unique move that Farrer makes comes next. The teachings of Jesus are given to us mostly in the form of (written) images. Think, for example, of “the kingdom of God” or “Son of Man” as true Adam.

These tremendous images, and others like them, are not the whole of Christ’s teaching, but they set forth the supernatural mystery which is the heart of the teaching. Without them, the teaching would not be supernatural revelation, but instruction in piety and morals. It is because the spiritual instruction is related to the great images, that it becomes revealed truth….The great images interpreted the events of Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection, and the events interpreted the images; the interplay of the two is revelation.

Theology analyses these images, but what we call revelation, according to Farrer, does not extend to theology; it is what theology works with. What then should be theology’s method? How do we theologize about way in which divine truth is captured in these images? One way is to systematize them so that some of them become the reason or meaning of the others. We are painfully familiar with the fruits of this method. Farrer wades through this and a variety of other options that we have encountered before settling on the idea that a fluid immersion in the power of the images given to us is most in keeping with the idea of revelation. The biblical writers themselves seem to be doing as much. “…[T]he images are still alive and moving in the writers minds, not fixed or diagrammatic. They continue to enter into fresh combinations, to elaborate themselves, to beget new applications.

In recent times, there has been a Christian rediscovery and appreciation of the Jewish concept of midrash for the interpretation of scripture. Much of what Farrer is saying resonates with that. Midrash, of course, simply means ‘interpretation’ in Judaism, but for many Christians brought up in a rigid, systematizing tradition it can be a novel idea. This strategy gives weight to the tensions within the texts, ones that are often papered over in an effort to achieve a fragile harmony. The tensions are allowed to pull the interpretations in different directions accordihebrew_text.jpgng to different contexts, nuancing the meaning. The point is to allow the text become life-giving once again. Because this approach is more topical than linear, the seeping in images that Farrer describes is a useful way to get at the deeper, complex meanings. When the texts speak with supernatural power into our life-situations, to illuminate, challenge, change, and console, this is revelation. “Through the secret act of God by which the Apostles were inspired there came upon us in imaged presentation the shape of the mystery of our redemption. It possessed and moulded their minds, it possesses and moulds ours…

The Glass of Vision Lecture 2: The Supernatural and the Weird

Building on the argument of the last lecture, Farrer works to distinguish the truly supernatural from the merely strange, things that “make our flesh creep” as he puts it. There are a variety of curiosities that his age seemed to give more credibility to than seems warranted to us now. The number of research studies, for example, in the 1950s and 60s that dreamed of finding evidence for ESP or telepathy seems silly to us now. Farrer, as a child of the times, feels compelled to ask how we might explain something like the miracles of Jesus as somehow different from these psychic feats. At least he doesn’t directly challenge their reality in this lecture, and, in any case, thinking through these concerns is instructive. To do this he uses the same distinction as before–the difference between natural (or more precisely, preternatural) abilities and the movement of something above our human nature. Farrer begins by placing ‘the weird’ on the side of the natural.

Now psychical research may have left us less clear than we were as to the sideways and downward limits of our natural powers; but it has done nothing, so far as I can see, to raise or unfix the ceiling.

To illustrate, he asks us to imagine a cone which has a clearly defined apex, but where the bottom and side fade into shadow. Things like telepathy or clairvoyance (whether we find them to be real or imaginary) are, in fact, no more amazing than the normal, natural operations of minds which “touch each other without bodily intervention.” They might be a hidden part of the cone, but what is of importance is not the mechanics, but the meaning. What is the intention behind the contact? This is the central feature of demarcation. The weird, “loose”, experience does not have wit, inspiration, or intelligence. If anything, Farrer suggests, it may be a more primitive element of our nature rather than something above or beyond it.

Now those activities we might call want to call supernatural, as opposed to weird, run into the same type of paradox that we’ve met before. Are the miracles of Jesus a natural act (“below the ceiling”) or a supernatural one? Farrer asks us once again if we need to set up a mutually exclusive opposition. He states, “…it is by no means clear that the finite excludes the infinite in the sense in which one finite excludes another.” Of course, there must be some limit to this, otherwise absorption of the natural into the supernatural would result, so according to Farrer, there is …

“…a point beyond which infinite God could not divinize his creature without removing its distinct creaturely nature, and as it were merging it in himself: an act which would be exactly equivalent to its annihilation.

He seems to be agnostic about exactly where that point lies. What we do know is that the mystery of the supernatural must fit into the realm of the natural, that it will not appear as something “tacked on” to the natural. Recall the term ‘supernaturalized’ from the previous lecture. The Creator, who gave life initially, continues to create through and in the creature, or as he pithily states, “in the second cause the first cause operates.” This principle of double agency, for Farrer, stands behind many riddles of the faith from the Chalcedonian formula of God-man, to the efficacy of prayer. He goes so far as to state that “there is no issue that theologians discuss that is not conditioned by it.

**Update: For more on the Christological implications of this, listen to Rowan William’s Hulsean lectures of 2016 which began concurrently with these posts. Williams also comments on Farrer at the 2017 de Lubac lectures at St. Louis. I particularly liked his suggestion that “What God is doing is us.” as a summary of Farrer’s thrust throughout the Glass of Vision.**

One underlying question that I kept having was whether or not the terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ were needed. Perhaps they get in the way. ‘Supernatural’ is a term that has often implied a realm that overpowers the creaturely. Farrer seems to be groping for a way to keep the two orders separate, in keeping with a long tradition that has used the term ‘supernatural’, while also subverting the implication of coercion or force that tends to go with it. This is one of the reasons he uses the vocabulary of ‘supernaturalized’. The contemporary reader should also hear intimations of more recent discussions in this work such as the search for a scientifically valid point of contact between God and nature, or the meaning of intelligence and consciousness as a way into a religious view of the world.


Anthony McCall, “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). The fifth minute. Photograph by Freddy Le Saux

In the next lecture, we turn to Farrer’s concept of divine revelation in scripture.

The Glass of Vision Lecture 1: The Supernatural and the Natural


In 1948, a little-remembered scholar in the Anglican tradition, Austin Farrer, gave a lecture entitled “The Glass of Vision“. You can find a copy of it courtesy of a scan by a library in Kansas here. The list of Bampton lecturers that include my subject are full of forgotten folk, but you may have seen, like I have, an occassional reference to some of his phrases or ideas punctuating a paragraph of more recent theology or biblical studies. Observant readers of C.S. Lewis may even recall that the foreword to Reflections on the Psalms is dedicated to him. Unfortunately, few of his works stay in print and this contributes to his unfamiliarity to the church as a whole.

However that may be, those familiar with Austin Farrer’s work universally declare this particular lecture to be representative of his best and most interesting thought. I will be mostly summarizing, but partly interacting with the lectures as I read them for the first time myself, but first, some background.

As a child, Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was a part of the Baptist tradition in England. His father was a Baptist minister and it was only later that he became an Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) while attending university. His early formation in the Baptist tradition is referred to as “a personalism which might satisfy the most ardent of Dr. Buber’s disciples” in this first lecture. Eventually he became a priest. Today he is remembered, by those who do, as one of the more creative minds the Anglican tradition produced in the 20th century and also as being in the company of the group of Oxford Christians, such as Dorthy Sayers and T.S. Eliot, who were not Inklings.

Ahead of his time, Farrer, was already combining various fields of study together in order to think more deeply about problems in theology. From the first lines of the preface we read:

The lectures which follow are no more than a modest attempt to state what I do, in fact, think about the relation borne to one another by three things- the sense of metaphysical philosophy, the sense of scriptural revelation, and the sense of poetry. Scsripture and metaphysics are equally my study, and poetry is my pleasure. These three things rubbing against one another in my mind, seem to kindle one another, and so I am moved to ask how this happens.

In this first of eight lecture, he sets up a problem for us. In part, the problem is driven by his self-defined ‘personalist’ upbringing. Accordingly, this caused him to expect to be able to converse with God “as one man faces another across a table, except that God was invisible and indefinitely great.” This is a state of mind, perhaps induced by childhood itself though often aided by sloppy language, that many readers will have passed through. Interestingly, Farrer credits his reading of Spinoza for the change of view, although he also makes it clear that, as an adult reader, he sees the problems that Spinoza’s pantheism creates. In some ways the current lecture could be read as Farrer exploring a middle way between his Baptist childhood’s flat reading of scripture and Spinoza’s “God, or call it Nature” conflation.

If neither of these are the case, how then do we describe our ‘relationship’ (I’m always reminded of how even this term is metaphorical) to God? Farrer here goes back to the time-worn definitions of first and second causes provided by Aristotle to set up an interesting dialectic between ‘natural reason’ and supernatural revelation’. Of course, these terms carry a certain amount of baggage. He further explains that “…we ought to throw the emphasis on the adjectives rather than upon the nouns. We have not to distinguish between God’s action and ours, but between two phases of God’s action- his supernatural action and his action by way of nature.” This creates more than a simple hierarchy with two mostly independent spheres of operation. Natural theology (he uses the broader term “rational theology”) and supernatural revelation are the ways that we perceive the action of God.  To us they appear separate, even contradictory. Farrer gives us these two principles, for example:

  1. If we believe in God at all, it is absurd and impious to imagine that we can find him out by our own reason, without his first being active in revealing himself to us. Therefore, all discovery of him is this self-manifestation, and all rational theology is revealed theology.
  2. If God does reveal himself to us, we cannot acknowledge or master what he reveals without the use of our reason. Therefore all his self-mainfestation is also our discovery of him, and all revealed theology is rational theology.

The second of these points will not be lost on the postmodern reader. We are quite accustomed to understanding all of our experiences and thoughts as filtered or interpreted by our presuppositions and culture. The idea that God is a first cause acting through secondary causes, however, is one that many in our contemporary situation have less experience with or may have even abandoned. For the sake of understanding what Farrer is up to, let us assume his Christian use of Aristotle and notice how he begins to solve the apparent contradiction.

In this view, “…nothing is supernatural to God…“, but from our perspective, if the realm of the supernatural is confined to a single First Cause, then it is left outside of and unrelated to our experience. Instead, for Farrer, “When the supernatural occurs, something in the existing world is supernaturalized..[my emphasis].” To illustrate this point, he uses an analogy from the world of fairy tales. In fairy tales, if a character does something on their own that is not within their power (nature), we would conclude “that we had defined his nature too narrowly, not that he had exceeded it. The idea of the supernatural is of a finite agent exceeding his natural power by higher assistance.

The problem’s solution should be clearer now. Every time the supernatural (that which is outside of, or beyond, nature) occurs, it must appear in a different medium, the natural. If this were not so, we would not be cognizant of it by definition. However, we can also fail to be aware of the presence of the supernatural simply because we are looking at the supernatural clothed, as it were, in the natural. While Farrer superficially appears to be distinguishing between ‘nature’ and ‘supernature’, he is actually bringing them into a tighter relationship given his starting point.

I’m reminded here of Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. If you translate a world with multiple dimensions into one with fewer, what would geometric shapes look like in each world? Something would get lost, but would there also be hints that an object was more than what it appeared to be? I’ve yet to read the rest of Farrer’s lectures. Perhaps the similarity to Abbott breaks down in the idea that existing objects in our world are, in his words, ‘super-naturalized’ (i.e. become more than they were capable on the principles of the natural world), while in Abbott’s thought experiment figures from another dimension are still themselves but only appear differently.