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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.

Playing the Part Well: Some Insights From C. S. Lewis and the Dropping of the Curtian

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I was rereading C. S. Lewis’s “The World’s Last Night” today. The words resonated with me as strongly as they did the first time I picked it up. The essay is about the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming, and covers a whole slew of topics about it. At one point he describes our universe as a kind of cosmic play, as a metaphor to explain what the Second Coming means. I found those sections to be the most inspiring. They remind me that the simple things I do every day can be the most important. They encourage me to try my hardest, regardless of how effective my efforts seem to my own eyes. And they chastise me, reminding me of the good things I have neglected to do, and the bad habits I’ve allowed to grow in my heart. Today I’d just like to share with you a selection from that longer essay. I hope you can get something out of it to.

“The doctrine of the Second Coming is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly towards perfection, something that ‘progresses’ or ‘evolves.’ Christian Apocalyptic offers us no such hope. It does not even foretell (which would be more tolerable to our habits of thought) a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, a brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain rung down on the play–‘Halt!'”

“The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds, the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.

In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely ‘First Servant.’ All the characters around him–Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund–have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.

The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph. This seems to some people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be interrupted. Perhaps you were going to get married next month, perhaps you were going to get a raise next week: you may be on the verge of a great scientific discovery; you may be maturing great social and political reforms. Surely no good and wise God would be so very unreasonable as to cut all this short? Not now, of all moments!

But we think thus because we keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. The audience, if there is an audience (if angels and archangels and all the company of heaven fill the pit and the stalls) may have an inkling. But we, never seeing the play from outside, never meeting any characters except the tiny minority who are ‘on’ in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be. That I has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely.”

A Chat With Mr. Enlightenment

I’ve been off here and there on the internet, as I’m wont to do. Lately I ran across a little mess that I had to poke my nose into. I ended up getting into a discussion with a certain atheist (I almost hesitate to call him that: not that he isn’t an atheist, but that his behavior is so regrettable that I don’t want to insult the many articulate, thoughtful, and reasonable atheists I know by putting him and them in the same category).  To make a long story short the discussion came down to me asking him for evidence that naturalism is true. He responded with something along the lines of “300 years of scientific progress.” I kindly asked him to explain what he meant by that, and what exactly scientific progress had to do with philosophical naturalism, and he merely rattled off as many scientific fields as he could think of. “Biology, geology, chemistry, physics” etc. When I asked him, again, for a specific argument he merely replied with “e=mc2”.

I never did get a straight answer out of him, but it reminded me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s first published novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. The book is purely allegorical, following after the example of The Pilgrim’s Progress by describing the journey of a man named John from his home in the land of Puritania to the wild lands of various human philosophies, customs, and fads before finally returning home again. The particular passage I’m thinking of came soon after John left Puritania when he was picked up by a nice old fat man on a cart by the name of Mr. Enlightenment. John left Puritania in search of a beautiful island that he experienced visions of back home. All his life he’s been taught about the Landlord (who represents God) by Stewards (who are essentially pastors and priests). Mr. Enlightenment soon strikes up a conversation with John.

“‘And where might you come from, my fine lad?’ said Mr. Enlightenment

‘From Puritania, sir,’ said John.

‘A good place to leave, eh?’

‘I am so glad you think that,’ cried John. ‘I was afraid—‘

‘I hope I am a man of the world,’ said Mr. Enlightenment. ‘Any young fellow who is anxious to better himself may depend on finding sympathy and support in me. Puritania! Why, I suppose you have been brought up to be afraid of the Landlord.’

‘Well, I must admit I sometimes do feel rather nervous.’

‘You may make your mind easy, my boy. There is no such person.’

‘There is no Landlord?’

‘There is absolutely no such thing–I might even say no such entity–in existence. There never has been and never will be.’

‘And this is absolutely certain?’ cried John; for a great hope was rising in his heart.

‘Absolutely certain. Look at me, young man. I ask you–do I look as if I was easily taken in?’

‘Oh, no,’ said John hastily. ‘I was just wondering, though. I mean–how did they all come to think there was such a person?’

‘The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can’t help admiring them.’

‘But do you mean that the Stewards don’t believe it themselves?’

‘I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them–just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and they would believe anything they were told.’

 John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:

‘But how do you know there is no Landlord?’

‘Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!’ exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said John.

‘Eh?’ said Mr. Enlightenment.

‘I didn’t quite understand,’ said John.”

Mr. Enlightenment’s “answer” to John’s question was something so ridiculous I’d never imagined I’d find an actual human being making it. Rattling off a series of unrelated scientific achievements tells us nothing about the existence of God, or the veracity of philosophical naturalism. Yet here I found it thrown at me in an actual discussion.

As I’ve said before, science and Christianity (theism in general, actually) get along perfectly well philosophically. I will never understand why science is used as an argument against it. It brings to my mind Mr. Enlightenment’s closing words to John on the subject:

“When you have had a scientific training you will find that you can be quite certain about all sorts of things which now seem to you only probable.”

The Thing Itself: When Death Swallowed Life

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I want to attempt to describe a beautiful image to you. It’s an image that I’ve held on to for two years now. It came to me, almost fully formed, two years ago. I’ve been holding on to it ever since. I try to keep it in my mind as best I can.

C.S. Lewis said that his fiction writing almost always started with an image. Story would follow after that. When I read that my heart sunk a little. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I’ve never approached it like that. I’ve always first thought up histories, settings, cultures, etc., and then tried to somehow coax a decent story out of all that. This method is all well and good, but it lacks something. Something really special. Why are the Chronicles of Narnia still considered classics among the sea of fantasy writing? What is that special something that makes good fiction into great fiction, into fiction that can touch people’s lives forever? The stories I come up with are interesting and make for good reading (at least I’d like to think so) but they have a dullness and flatness about them. They remind me of old clockwork wind up toys: they may be excellently crafted, and their inner mechanisms may be very complex and intricate, but they aren’t very beautiful to look at. I’ve read many books that I’ve felt similarly about. They have an abundance of skill but are lacking in soul. And how can you produce soul? You can practice your skills until they’re sharp as a razor, but I know of no practice that can help you in constructing soul. I want to write fantasy. More than anything I’d like to write something like the Chronicles of Narnia, something with even an tiny fraction of it’s power and beauty. The method I was most used to wouldn’t work to get there. Worldbuilding, fun as it is, just won’t cut it alone. I found that confirmed by Lewis himself. As a boy he played at worldbuilding too. He created a whole imaginary country called Animal-Land, complete with a long and detailed history, dozens of characters, culture, trade, wars, adventures, etc. However, this is what he wrote about it later in life:

“…in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist. Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. For readers of my children’s books, the best way of putting this would be to say that Animal-Land had nothing whatever in common with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts. Animal-Land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder (Surprised by Joy, pg 15).”

My next questions, of course, was how Lewis went from Animal-Land to Narnia: how did he capture that sense of wonder? Then I read that Lewis first came up with Narnia, not as a civilization or an interesting idea, when the image came to him one day of a lamppost in a snowy woods, and a faun walking by. The image came first. Everything else followed. This, I thought to myself, is what I’m missing. This, perhaps, is where soul comes from. The problem is that I could find no way to force images to come to me. I still can’t. The element I believed was missing was something I couldn’t create with hard work.

But then, as if by chance, an image came. It came in the most unlikely of places: my Introduction to Christian Doctrine class. Our teacher was a very kind, and very wise, old scholar who had written so many influential books on early Christianity that he really should have been teaching somewhere far more prestigious. Instead he was with us, lecturing on the development of doctrine in the early church in his own gentle tones. The subject on the day the image came was on different conceptions of Christ. I can’t remember exactly what he said. I only know that, at some point, he mentioned the idea that death, in taking Jesus’s life, inadvertently swallowed the source of all life itself. The idea that life is stronger than death thrilled me; that in the presence of life death flees as darkness flees in the presence of light. Suddenly my mind was flooded with images. A black, inky landscape. A mansion made of charred bones. A captive comes before a throne, and on the throne stirs a skeletal figure draped in tattered grey shroud. He is Death himself, ruler of the world, the final conqueror. All must come before him and submit to his rule. All will be brought to stillness, and dust. This captive is no different. Death rises to consume him as all other have been consumed before. Death feared this man once, but now he is within his own domain, the source of Death’s power. But bringing the captive here was a mistake. Unknowingly Death has invited Life itself into his home. Too late he realizes his error. He tries to throw his prisoner out of the mansion, but already vines are growing on the dusty bone walls. Already green is spreading. Already Death himself finds flowers sprouting from his skull…

The description does the image a great disservice. It does not capture it, not by a half. That’s the trouble. The image is more than just a collection of objects, colors, and shapes. It’s a living thing in my mind. Concepts and visuals intertwined into more than I can adequately express. When I read the description I just wrote I feel embarrassed. It’s just not right! It’s as close as I can come right now, but it’s so far from what I see.

Still, I wanted to share it with you today. I’m going to hang on to this image. Someday I will find a story I can attempt to place it in. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to share with others what I see. But perhaps not. I’ll leave you with one last Lewis quote. I didn’t understand it when I first read it. But I understand it now, and I know that even he struggled mightily to share what was really in his mind. This excerpt is from a letter he wrote to a girl who wanted his advice on a piece of her writing.

“You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”

That’s the problem with my description. I can try to express the images: but the images are only settings for the thing itself.