The Glass of Vision Lecture 6: Archetypes and Incarnation

It is, as it were, step by step that we have entered into an understanding of the truth.

This paraphrase of Aquinas by Austin Farrer summarizes the theme of the sixth lecture. If, as we have been told, the shadow of God falls upon the natural world, then we would expect it to fall upon our language and imaginations as an important part of that world. Farrer takes up the way in which certain powerful images, which he calls archetypes, develop or, alternately “burst” on the scene in particular moments of history. It is clear that he sees this as providential.

Early humanity in possession of these images is pictured by Farrer’s use of the term ‘Hottentot’, a particular southwestern African tribal group that we now call the Khoikho. His use of this term parallels Pope’s “Indian”, and he has in mind ‘primitive’ or ‘animistic’ religion as producing  genuine archetypes in a partial and confused way. Farrer thinks of the archetypes it traffics in as a part of reality given by God, but there is certainly a sense of necessary development from then until now. Yet he also disagrees with the Enlightenment view represented by Alexander Pope.

What Farrer really wants us to understand is that Christianity is not a simple acceptance of archetypes according to natural reason, nor is it a simple rejection of them. Christ “clothes” himself in the archetypes of the past; they take on new meanings in him. Christianity doesn’t reject the archetypes as meaningless just because they can produce unsophisticated dogmatisms.

Crass heathenism would have reduced the image of God to the scale of David. Enlightened rationalism would have abandoned the kingly archetype, and cut the thread connecting God with the throne.

Instead of reducing archetypes to natural creativity, Christianity understands God as raising them to the level of incarnation. There are three or four (depending on how you organize the material in this lecture) different views that can be taken concerning these archetypes. First, we can reduce the images to the natural level, or see them as supernaturalized by God. The one is idolatry, the other is the path of Christianity. Interestingly, Farrer thinks that the religion depicted in the Hebrew Bible is neither, but rather, a “suspense between the two“.

Modernistic thought fails to see the deep truths in the archetypes. Farrer quotes Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man”, which ends with the famous line, “The proper study of man is man.” He asks whether this is the natural trajectory of these images as we move into the modern world. Do we accept God in general (as Creator) and drop the other images? Enlightenment rejection of archetypal images as illogical or unreasonable in light of our current state of knowledge is not Farrer’s approach as a Christian. Farrer agrees that the images must be universalized, but thinks that the Enlightenment procedure is a negative (in the sense of emptying or negating) one.

Altogether, the options in regard to archetypal images in this lecture can be summarized as follows:

  • Explain them as a completely natural phenomenon, whether in the primitive (or pagan) manner of concern for a “manifestation of creative power“, or by “reducing them to creative intentions“.
  • View them as suspended between the natural and supernatural; “half-transformed
  • Understand them as instruments incarnated by God and fully transformed in Jesus; “Christ clothed himself in the archetypal images.” They are a connecting point for supernatural revelation.