Monday, August 29, 2005

The Oxford in Narnia

A few things that C.S. Lewis is responsible for:
1. Developing the "argument from desire." In a time when the classic theological proofs seemed to have lost their currency, this line of reasoning was a refreshing twist. Basically it suggests that just as our thirst signals the need for and thus probable existence of water, so our deepest longings for joy signal that their fulfillment, most completely in God, very well may exist.

2. Showing us that the parallels to Christianity in Greek mythology need not lead one towards Campbellite conclusions, but could actually support one's Christian faith. The predecessors don't relativize the claims of Christianity as much as they point toward their Christian fulfillment, where the "myth becomes fact."

3. Exposing the fact that the materialist smuggles a priori assumptions into debates just as much as the Christians does. In other words, to say with Freud that love is merely euphamized lust requires at least as many unprovable presuppositions about the nature of the universe as when Christians insist that lust is a lesser form of love. In this Lewis did not attempt to "prove God" as much as he leveled the playing field with those who thought they could disprove God.

4. Making us aware of what he famously termed our "chronological snobbery" by exposing unexamined biases such as "everyone thought the world was flat before the Christopher Columbus" to be exactly what they were - Enlightenment propaganda (that, amazingly, is still taught today). Lewis, who advised we read three old books for every new one, spent enough time with Aristotle, Ptolemy and Aquinas to have gotten around to discovering that they too knew the world was round.

5. Showing us that the problem of evil contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, that is - the idea of justice itself. But at the same time giving us in A Grief Observed a personal account of human suffering that was anything but simplistic.
Of course Lewis also gave us his fiction where he enfleshed the above ideas. But my point in presenting the above "arguments" is to highlight the fact that the author of the Chronicles of Narnia was also the first president of the Oxford Socratic Club. Somehow I think that the two are not unrelated. Legend has it that after one particularly troublesome tangle with G.E.M. Anscombe over his essay on miracles, that Lewis decided naked reason was very limited in what it could accomplish - and so, to the taunt of many a colleague, he began to write fantasies and children's books (genres that had then been long since relegated to the nursery). But it worked - and so that 1948 debate may therefore be as good a time as any to mark the "postmodern" shift in theological method.

And for a brief refresher of what Lewis' fiction is responsible for:
1. Questioning the "humanitarian" argument against hell in The Great Divorce by showing us how consistent hell is with divine love: The consequence of, as it was for Dante, absolute freedom - God's "thy will be done" to his creatures.

2. Showing through his space trilogy that the Christian imagination is not limited to Medieval cosmology, and can quickly and ably follow behind anything our telescopes can discover.

3. Simply making many cobwebbed Christian docrtrines eminently believable again: The Genesis account of creation and fall in The Magician's Nephew and (more convincingly I think) Perelandra, repentance and baptism in Eustace the boy-dragon of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of course demons in The Screwtape Letters and atonement in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

4. Giving us a revealing portrait of the materialist attempt to deconstruct Christian belief in The Silver Chair where the a witch tries to convince the children with captivating music that Aslan is a mythic copy of mundane cat. (They're still doing it to Lewis today.)

5. Both exposing the shallowness of religious relativism in The Last Battle's "Tashlan" (a mix of Tash and Aslan which was neither) and providing a very generous assessment of religions other than Christianity through the playing out of the final judgment scene in that same book: Where those who did good in the name of the false god Tash are shown to have actually done so to Aslan, and evil done in the name of Aslan was actually done to Tash.
I don't mean here to "decode" the fiction. Lewis wrote so that his work could stand alone without such interpretations, and even advised parents not to say things like "Aslan is Jesus," but to let children figure it out, when the time was right, on their own. What I hope to show instead is that for Lewis, imagination is not limited by "doctrine", but liberated by it. Rather than being a wet blanket on creativity, robust doctrine is food for it - as Tolkien, a devout Catholic, makes plain. Or consider another serious Catholic, who I am told in a letter to a friend insisted,
"I wrote The Divine Comedy not as an allegory, but as a practical guide that men and women might find salvation."
Our zeitgeist gets less excited about argument than it does about imagination - which is fine - Lewis saw that sixty-some years ago and made the strategic shift. He did this to get past the "sleeping dragons" of reason, but by doing so he never left reason behind.