Monthly Archives: November 2013
I Go to Die with Odin: C.S. Lewis and Death
Last week (on November 22) marked the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. Lewis is perhaps best known for his “Narnia” books, and after that as a writer of apologetics. As I remember his life I recognize that the subject of death was one that Lewis was intimately familiar with. His mother died of cancer when he was only a child. As a young man he fought in the trenches of World War I where grisly and sudden death was a daily reality. When he returned from the war he found himself in an almost empty university, a cold reminder of how an entire generation was nearly annihilated in that great conflict. He lived to see his father die, also of cancer, as well as the beginning and end of World War II where bombings and rocket attacks meant that your own death, or the death of a neighbor, was always close at hand. His marriage late in life was cut tragically short when his wife Joy died slowly of cancer, just as his father and mother had. His book “A Grief Observed” shows us that he understood well the pain and suffering of losing a loved one. If anyone can claim to know about death then Lewis certainly can.
Knowing this makes Lewis’s beliefs about death all the more striking. I have been born and raised in a culture where death is the greatest evil possible. Our goal is to extend the human life as far as possible. Billions of dollars are spent on medical research, and hundreds of billions more on medical expenses. Wealthy individuals such as Google’s Larry Page are founding organizations whose sole purpose is to cure death itself. Futurists speak of a time when we will be able to download our brains into robots in order to achieve cybernetic immortality. Space enthusiasts dream of the day when the human race will spread to other planets in order to preserve the human race from disaster. Everywhere there is fear that humanity will destroy itself finally and completely, whether through nuclear war, pollution, or some kind of human concocted super plague. From an early age we are taught the life is a struggle for existence, and we grew up watching movie villains justify their actions as “survival of the fittest.” Certain activists warn of the perils of overpopulation and propose strict reproductive controls. Everywhere you look people are warning that, if we don’t act now, the human race will be destroyed.
This is the culture I live in and was raised in. It came as a shock then when I came across an essay of Lewis’s titled “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis begins by recalling another essay recently published where it was speculated that someday mankind may be forced to travel to another planet to survive. “In ‘Possible Worlds’ Professor Haldane pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness. The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.”
This statement floored me. I had been working until that point under the cultural assumption that the survival of the species was an unchallengable good. Yet here Lewis says, in no uncertain terms, that mere survival is “a contemptible ideal.” After the initial shock passed I realized that I agreed with him. Lewis was, essentially, saying that it would be better for the human race to die as men then to live as monsters. He was sticking a sword in that utilitarian ideal that the good of the many outweighs the needs of the few. It is better instead for the many to suffer and retain their goodness, their morality, their humanity, then to sacrifice those things in exchange for survival. As an ethic it doesn’t exactly align with the times. But I have since adopted it as my own.
Another aspect of Lewis’s philosophy of death is simply recognizing the fact that death is inevitable. In his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” which was written not long after the first atomic bombs were used in combat, Lewis writes “do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.” The point is clear. No matter what we do we will die in the end: therefore how we live our life matters far more than how long we can stretch it out. What’s more is that the human race is similarly destined to come to an end someday, regardless of your religious beliefs. The Christian believes that this universe will come to an end when Jesus returns and the final trump is sounded; but even the most stringent atheist scientist can tell you that life in the universe is doomed either way, as Lewis is quick to point out. “The astronomers hold out no hope that this planet is going to be permanently inhabitable. The physicists hold out no hope that organic life is going to be a permanent possibility in any part of the material universe. Not only this earth, but the whole show, all the suns of space, are to run down…If nature is all that exists–In other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature–then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return.”
Lewis believed, as I do, that there is something outside Nature: that there is a God, and that after death we will live on with him, and that a new creation will come after the final judgement. Whether we are right on that or not makes no difference to the fact that we all die, and that someday civilization will come to an end. The person who sacrifices a million men so that humanity may survive a little longer is as foolish and despicable as a person who sacrifices a thousand men so that he may survive another month.
Better instead to seek goodness, wisdom, and morality instead of longevity. In any case the man who sacrifices any of those three in exchange for life is a fool, for in the end life is a gift that he cannot keep. This seems like a morbid philosophy but on the whole I’ve found it incredibly freeing. It is an inspiring philosophy, one that reminds us what is really important, and really lasting. If one must choose between sacrificing his life or sacrificing his soul then he must pick his soul. His life will be taken from him either way.
We can find this philosophy expressed in Lewis’s essay “First and Second Things.” In it Lewis talks about how Nazi Germany fundamentally misunderstood Nordic mythology. He writes that “The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. ‘I am off to die with Odin’ said the rover in Stevenson’s fable, thus proving that Stevenson understood something about the Nordic spirit which (Nazi) Germany has never been able to understand at all. The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humourous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder, will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants and misshapen trolls. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.”
The man who holds to the right and dies fighting is to be envied. He has given up his human life, which is inevitably taken from us all, to preserve his humanity. I hope to live my life in the same way.
Tragedy in Light of History: Boudicca’s Defeat
By the middle of the 1st century the Roman Empire had a fairly solid footing in Britain. They controlled most of southern Britain and had built colonies and settlements which were doing well. Though there were still hostile tribes to the north the Romans had made alliances with many of the tribes near their own borders. One of these tribes, the Iceni, was ruled by the chieftain Prasutagus. In order to ensure peace and prosperity for his tribe Prasutagus named the Roman emperor as a co-heir of his kingdom, alongside his daughters. However after his death the Romans did not recognize his daughter’s claim. They took complete control of their territories, flogged Prasutagus’s wife Boudicca, and raped his daughters. Seeking justice and revenge against these invaders from the south Boudicca stirred up the Iceni people into a revolt, along with a neighboring tribe known as the Trinovantes.
This is the kind of story that blockbuster movies are made from. A peaceful and proud people are betrayed by a foreign empire. A woman, recently widowed and brutally beaten while her daughters are violated stirs up the countryside, driving the invaders out and restoring freedom to the oppressed. When I started reading about Boudicca I wanted her to succeed very badly. It is a prime example of the “underdog” ideal, and Americans love an underdog.
Of course Boudicca isn’t purely sympathetic. Her rebellion strikes out at a Roman colony known for its oppressive practices. The Romans, not suspecting much trouble and with the main army off fighting to the west, are completely overwhelmed and handily defeated. The colony is utterly destroyed and everyone within killed. It is a little harder to empathize with the underdog when they go around slaughtering entire towns. All the same I still wanted them to succeed. When it comes to slaughtering people the Romans are quite a bit worse off than the Iceni, after all. The Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, returns from conquest to find himself facing a rebellion of massive proportions. Over 100,000 rebels were assembled and marched on Londinium, a wealthy Roman settlement. Paulinus has less than 10,000 soldiers to defend it. He decides to abandon the town, and encourages the populace to follow his example. When the rebels arrive they find no resistance. They burn the city to the ground and kill everyone who remained behind.
While Paulinus attempted to assemble more men the rebels marched on his position. They were confident. The Romans may have been far better equipped, trained, and disciplined, but they were outnumbered at least 10 to 1. The rebels had few good weapons but were tough fighters nonetheless, and ten men with clubs can easily defeat one man with a sword and armor. They can defeat him, that is, provided that they can all attack him at once. Paulinus was smarter than that. He camped his forces in a gully with steep walls and a thick forest to the rear. It would be difficult for an army to attack from behind, and the narrow gully would prevent any attacking force from flanking or putting their superior numbers to good use. Boudicca and her massive army found the rebels hunkering down. Confident in her superiority of numbers and with justice on her side she began an assault on the Roman position. Everything was in the balance. If Paulinus was defeated here then the only soldiers remaining in Britain would be a smattering of isolated legions guarding small settlements. Though she likely did not know it Nero, the current emperor, was considering simply abandoning Britain: after all it was simply a backwater province full of troublesome barbarians on the other side of a large channel. If Boudicca succeeded it is likely that the Romans would have left the island and the Iceni, along with the other tribes, would be free once more.
The Iceni charged up the gully, right into a rain of Roman javelins (known as pilum). The javelin barrage slowed their charge, and a second volley scattered their lines. Seizing the advantage Paulinus ordered his troops to charge into the fray. The well-disciplined soldiers, equipped with armor, shields, and proper weapons, crashed into the Iceni forces like an anvil falling on a pile of hard-boiled eggs. The rebels were unable to flank the Roman troops because of the gully walls. The men in front, dying by the dozen, tried to retreat. They ran right into the still advancing ranks behind them, turning the gully into a giant mosh pit with no room to manuever. The Romans continued their advance, annihilating the rebel forces. In the end the rebellion was scattered and destroyed. Paulinus soon returned order to the province. Boudicca either died of sickness not long after or committed suicide; her exact fate is unsure.
Reading about her horrific defeat left me feeling very sad. I wished that I could go back in time and tell her not to fight the Romans there. To wait them out, or to sack more settlements until Paulinus was forced to come to her. It seemed terribly unjust. People rise up against their oppressors and the oppressors obliterate them. What kind of story is that? At the time it must have seemed a terrible tragedy, especially as the bodies of tens of thousands of rebels littered the battlefield.
But then I started thinking. What if I could go back in time and make it so that Boudicca succeeded? What if the Romans were driven off the islands and the tribes were free once more? The consequences of such a change of history became immediately apparent. Almost 250 years later Christianity would become the religion of the Roman empire. The Roman communities in Britain became primary Christian over time. If the Roman Empire had been driven off then Britain would have remained pagan. What’s more St. Patrick would never have existed. St. Patrick was born and raised in Roman Britain, and he later converted the Celtic peoples of Ireland to the Christian faith. Those Irish Christians would bring Christianity to modern-day Scotland and found monasteries all over the British Isles. They sent missionaries not only to Scotland but to mainland Europe where they converted many barbarian tribes to the Christian faith. They also devoted themselves to copying ancient Roman and Greek texts, preserving them through the time of unrest during and after the fall of Rome. The Irish monks preserved much knowledge in this way. If Boudicca had succeeded then none of this would have come to pass. What seemed at the time to be a great tragedy and injustice was, in the end, for the best.
It makes me wonder what events happening in our own time will be transformed in the light of history thousands of years hence. I am reminded that we can’t see the big picture. Terrible things happen that cannot be predicted: earthquakes level cities, typhoons destroy whole regions, dictators oppress the masses, good causes fail, and injustice appears to prevail. Could it be that in these tragedies lie the seeds of great good that will someday grow and flourish? It certainly seems possible. It would have been amazing if Boudicca had won; but if she had the world would likely have been the worse for it.
It really makes you think.
Living Below 0 Degrees (Fahrenheit)
As long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination for the cold. When I was 10 or 11 I decided to see how long I could stay outside in a t-shirt on a chilly fall evening. It was only about 40° F outside, typical for a Washington fall. I stood in the gravel road just a few steps from my front door and set my will against the temperature. The light was dimming. I was cold; but I found that I could take the cold. I could make it a part of me. It could set it aside and withstand. I was just a shivering skinny little nerd with a wild head of hair and round glasses on the outside, but inside I felt like a conqueror. As years went by I tried to increase my tolerance. I learned that the key was to accept the cold. If you fought the cold, if you tried to stay warm mentally, then you would be miserable. You had to make the cold an extension of yourself. I imagined myself as a man made of ice, that my skin was blue as a crevasse and that ice water flowed in my veins. Then I could welcome the cold like a friend. I could pretend that I was in my own element. The cold wasn’t something to escape but embrace. If I concentrated on these ideas then the cold became bearable. Sometimes it even became enjoyable.
Eventually I became satisfied with mental experiments. I stopped deliberately exposing myself to the cold and only used my mental techniques when I had to (ie, I forgot my coat and dang if it ain’t chilly outside). Then the strange wheels of fate turned and I found myself here in Anchorage, Alaska. After an unusually long and warm fall (for Anchorage anyway) winter has finally arrived, and with a vengeance. I got used to the temperature being in the 20s (-6 to -1 °C). Then two days ago it dropped down to 8° (-13° C). Yesterday I woke up and it was -7° (-21° C). And I know that soon enough we’ll be reaching temperatures in the -20° range (-28° C). This is cold like I had never known it before.
Naturally I was curious to see what temperatures in the negative degrees felt like. As a child I’d read Jack London and wonder what such extreme colds would actually feel like to be in. It seems possible to me that others may be curious. So let me tell you what -7° temperature feels like.
Oddly enough it feels mostly the same as 25°.
The thing about minor extreme cold is that it doesn’t affect your body differently than regular cold. You’re still losing heat to the air around you. The only difference is that at 25° I can go about in my coat, gloves, and hat for hours if I have to and still be fairly warm under the layers. In 0° and below temperature I lose my heat much more rapidly. I took my gloves off to scrape my car’s windshield the other day, just as I would do back home in Washington. I was surprised to find that my hands were painfully cold after only a minute or so of exposure. That’s the thing about this cold. It can deceive you into thinking that you’re safe while it steals away your body heat.
And don’t even think about going outside with wet hair. My head was slightly damp from showering yesterday and in the ten seconds or so it took to walk to the warm car my hair went from “warm and wet” to “dunked in a frozen pond.” I took a ten minute walk at noon yesterday, when the temp was about 8 or 9°, and my face was feeling the pain by the end of it. The rest of my body was fine, covered with my heavy winter coat, gloves, and wooly hat.
I can still remember that Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” had a man traveling in temperatures of -70° (-56° C). At that point if you spit it’ll be frozen long before it hits the ground. I still have no idea what such extreme temperature feels like. I probably never will (Anchorage, being warmed somewhat by the ocean, gets to about -30° at worst from what I hear). Still I have an idea what it will feel like. For a brief amount of time (maybe just before your first breath) it will feel like any other cold. And it’ll still feel like that until it’s stolen almost all your heat away.
Which will happen very, very fast.
“I just believe in one less god than you” is too modest.
“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do.” —Stephen F Roberts
The above quote is an argument I’ve heard several times from atheists attempting to discredit Christianity. “You don’t believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, Ahura Mazda, or the thousands of other deities that man has worshiped. I agree with you; I simply take it the final step and reject belief in any god at all.” It’s a clever thing to say; certainly there is poetic satisfaction in claiming that the Christian you’re arguing with is actually an atheist like yourself. However I feel that as an argument it misses the point entirely.
As a Christian I do believe that God is the only, well, “god” that exists. So it is true that I do not believe in Odin, Zeus, Thor, etc. However as a Christian I do believe that most other religions have many things right. I am not a Hindu, but the Hindus and I agree that there is more to the world than the material, that humans have souls, and that there is objective right and wrong. There are many aspects of Brahmin that I recognize as aspects of my own God. I simply believe that Hindus are wrong on most of the details. Though I don’t believe in Brahmin, and the Hindu doesn’t believe in Yahweh, we both believe in the existence of a supreme supernatural mind that created everything. We have much to agree about.
Similarly though I don’t believe in Odin and Thor I do see much truth in the old Nordic “religion.” The pagan Norseman and myself agree that a man’s spirit survives his death, that our deeds on this Earth have a great effect on our final destination, that courage and valor is to be valued, and that someday this world will be destroyed in fire and be created anew. I don’t believe in Baldur, but I see much of Jesus in his story. And again, we both recognize the existence of the supernatural.
The same is true of every religion. Though as a Christian I reject many ideas and concepts from other religions there is also always something I can find that is true. This is as it should be. After all, I believe we are all created in the image of God and that we all long for him. It is only natural that God can be found, imperfectly, in all religions. Some, like Judaism or Islam, I believe are only wrong on certain important details. Others, like Shintoism, I believe are wrong on many very important aspects. But I agree with them all in the existence of the soul, or of a coming judgment, or that there is more to this world than the material. It’s true I don’t believe in Odin, or Brahmin, or Zeus, and their followers don’t believe in Yahweh. But we all agree that there is a god, or gods.
The atheist on the other hand is in a very different position. The atheist believes that all religions are completely wrong in their most important aspects: that there are no gods, no souls, no spirits, no supernatural. The atheist must reject all these religions outright. This puts him in an extraordinary position: he must believe that the vast majority of all humans who currently exist or who have ever existed were wrong about the most basic beliefs and experiences that they held in common. Now that’s fine if you can believe that. However don’t try to lump me in there with you.
Lets imagine for a moment that I believed in unicorns, and that I believed I had seen one once (though it was very far away and deeply shrouded in mist). Lets say that I found others who believed they had seen it as well. However this person calls it a “Lorecks” instead of a unicorn, and he believes it’s much taller and thinner that what I saw; and this one calls it a “Poojim” and believes it is more like a great horned cat; and this one over here calls it a unicorn like I do, but believes it is a terrible ravaging meat eater, while yet another claims it is a peaceful herbivore. Hearing all this different accounts might make me doubt my own conception of the unicorn: but the last thing it would do is make me doubt that a unicorn exists. Instead my faith would be strengthened by that fact that all these other people did see something. There is a magical creature out there; it is only my own conception of it that is in doubt. In just the same way pointing out that mankind has believed in thousands of other gods and worshipped in other ways may be a decent argument against my own conception of God, but it is a terrible argument to try and make me believe that there are no gods at all. Indeed it only strengthens my faith in the supernatural.
It’s true that I believe in one God, and the atheist believes in none. But the fact is that the atheist doesn’t believe in a whole lot more than that. As a Christian I can rest assured that my belief in the supernatural is shared by, statistically, almost every human who ever existed. It is the atheist who must live with the fact that he believes that he is correct in the face of almost all of humanity.
In any case I think we can agree that the quote in question doesn’t make a very compelling argument for atheism.
A Guest Post About Faith
Today I have a special post from a guest author. Our guest today does not have a blog, but she’s asked me if I could post a little article she wrote. The article came partly in response to a recent announcement, where an old classmate of ours (who is still at school and currently is the student body president) revealed that he is an atheist. Considering that the school is a Christian school (and not just in name only) this came as a bit of a shock to some people. I had my suspicious a while ago, so it was less of a shock to me. The person in question is a really nice guy, and it’s a credit to his honesty that he decided to let everyone know. This article was prompted by this announcement, but it is not really in response to it. It simply got the author thinking about things, and she really wanted to put her words down on (virtual) paper.
To get two things out of the way ahead of time: this is not a work of apologetics. It is not meant to be an argument but instead to be a reflection on faith. So don’t get your underwear in a bunch because her definition of “faith” or “belief” or “atheism” isn’t quite correct. It’s not that kind of post.
What do we know?
What is faith? What is atheism?
I could tell you what my parents think about it. Or I could tell you what my professor of philosophy might say about it. But I have to say that I am one who has her own opinions on this matter. I have been thinking about this topic since I was 9 years old. This was when my life had not yet turned around, I lost one of the people I loved most in this world, and I was living in a home that seemed broken. I questioned myself; I grew up in a Christian home, but where was God? Why did he take the one person who I really loved away from me? Why did I suffer every day? These where questions that a 9 year old girl shouldn’t ask herself. She should be off playing with dollies and having fun. After that it seemed like my life just kept getting worse. I still loved God: I still believed that he existed. But every day I woke up in fear. I could go into detail about all the bad things that happened to me, but that is not what this article is about. This article is for the purpose of asking why, in all that horribleness, did I keep my faith? What is faith? What is atheism? Is there a difference?
I personally have to say that there is no difference. Faith and atheism is the same to me. My definition of faith is that you believe in something. The definition of atheism is that you believe that there is nothing. Either way you have a belief. You have faith that there is or is not something. There was one time where someone might be reasonable in saying that I had lost my faith. But the way I see it I was just frustrated at God. I was hurt, and angry, and every night before I went to bed I would scream at Him, saying “If you existed then why did this happen to me?” I ask myself every day now “how did I get it back?” How did I turn out loving God? How did I start seeing, every day, His miracles?
My mom and dad changed when I was 13. They became much healthier people. You’d think “Oh, well they changed. Your life should be better.” But my life did not start to be better until much later. I went off to a Christian university. I was a broken and battered young woman who was trying to deal with everything that was happening. And somehow, God found me. Not through some divine experience, not through some miraculous voice in the sky. It was through what me and my family call “Jesus with skin on.” It was through human beings showing me love and kindness that I had never experienced before. This is the place where I met my soul brother and my husband.
Most of my friends who are agnostic or atheist I’ve found have experienced some sort of horrific trauma. They end up spending all their time focused on that trauma, and they end up missing the miracles that happen every day; the everyday un-coincidences. We could say that my grandfather just happened to get sick, which just happened to make me go to a school that was near him, which just happened to make me meet my soul brother and husband. We could say that. The truth is I see no coincidence. Instead I see a journey. I see God taking me out of a horrible situation and a horrible place and saying “Child, just wait a little longer.”
Most of what happened to me was because I did not want to wait. I kept saying “No God, everything is horrible. I want it my way.” Like a little two year old throwing a tantrum. I cannot regret my past because it led directly to my present. How would I know how different things might be if the things that happened to me as a little girl didn’t happen?
So I tell you: atheism is not the absence of faith, but the refusal to have faith in anyone else but yourself. If that is working for you, great. Keep going. Keep trucking down that path. One day you will trip over a big rock, and everyday you’ll wonder “why is this not working?” And I tell you it’s because you are only having faith in yourself. You’re not on your own. You don’t have to do it by yourself.
You may have noticed that there where no posts last week. That was deliberate on my part. I had been working on some writing projects of my own, and I felt that I needed to devote all my creative time and energy towards getting one of them in particular finished. Well I did finish it. So I’m back.
The project I can’t speak too much about (at this stage of development whether it will go anywhere is difficult to predict) but the gist of it that, inspired by the holiday atmosphere, I got a neat little idea for a story about Halloween. Unfortunately by it’s very nature I knew it wouldn’t work as a short story, nor as a short film. It was a very visual idea; the only way I can see it working is with either cel animation (which is way beyond my abilities) or as a graphic novel (that is, a comic book). Fortunately I still have my artist friend who did the artwork for SLOPAN. He recently told me he was interested in working on a short comic book project, I told him about my idea, and he’s interested in doing the art for it. Last week I wrote the script and sent it off to him. From here it’s just a matter of concept art, storyboarding, sketching, inking, and coloring. That will take time, but time is something we have. If we get it done it won’t be released until next October: it is a Halloween story after all.
There I go. I said I couldn’t speak too much about the project, and I’ve gone and spoken a lot. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, there is still a lot that could go wrong and lead to the scrapping of the project as a whole. But at least you guys have an idea what I’m up to these days.