Saturday 7 July 2018

Heaven: CS Lewis versus the Fourth Gospel

From the Essay Transposition by CS Lewis.

I believe this doctrine of Transposition provides for most of us a background very much needed for the theological virtue of Hope. We can hope only for what we can desire. And the trouble is that any adult and philosophically respectable notion we can form of Heaven is forced to deny of that state most of the things our nature desires. There is no doubt a blessedly ingenuous faith, a child’s or a savage’s faith which finds no difficulty. It accepts without awkward questionings the harps and golden streets and the family reunions pictured by the hymn writers. Such a faith is deceived, yet, in the deepest sense, not deceived, for while it errs in mistaking symbol for fact, yet it apprehends Heaven as joy and plenitude and love. But it is impossible for most of us. And we must not try, by artifice, to make ourselves more naïf than we are. A man does not “become as a little child” by aping childhood. Hence our notion of Heaven involves perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no movement, no mirth, no events, no time, no art.

Against all these, to be sure, we set one positive: the vision and enjoyment of God. And since this is an infinite good, we hold (rightly) that it outweighs them all. That is, the reality of the Beatific Vision would or will outweigh, would infinitely outweigh, the reality of the negations. But can our present notion of it outweigh our present notion of them? That is quite a different question. And for most of us at most times the answer is no. How it may be for great saints and mystics I cannot tell. But for others the conception of that Vision is a difficult, precarious, and fugitive extrapolation from a very few and ambiguous moments in our earthly experience, while our idea of the negated natural goods is vivid and persistent, loaded with the memories of a lifetime, built into our nerves and muscles and therefore into our imaginations.

Thus the negatives have, so to speak, an unfair advantage in every competition with the positive. What is worse, their presence – and most when we most resolutely try to suppress or ignore them – vitiates even such a faint and ghostlike notion of the positive as we might have had. The exclusion of the lower goods begins to seem the essential characteristic of the higher good. We feel, if we do not say, that the vision of God will come not to fulfil but to destroy our nature; this bleak fantasy often underlies our very use of such words as “holy” or “pure” or “spiritual.”

We must not allow this to happen if we can possibly prevent it. We must believe – and therefore in some degree imagine – that every negation will be only the reverse side of fulfilling. And we must mean by that the fulfilling, precisely, of our humanity, not our transformation into angels nor our absorption into the Deity. For though we shall be “as the angels” and made “like unto” our Master, I think this means “like with the likeness proper to men” as different instruments that play the same air but each in its own fashion. How far the life of the risen man will be sensory, we do not know. But I surmise that it will differ from the sensory life we know here, not as emptiness differs from water or water from wine, but as a flower differs from a bulb or a cathedral from an architect’s drawing. And it is here that Transposition helps me.

While Transposition is one of Lewis's best and deepest essays; nonetheless I diagree very strongly with some aspects of it; but more to the point - Lewis disagrees strongly with the account of Jesus's teachings in the Fourth Gospel.

The problem is the above passage starts with: any adult and philosophically respectable notion we can form of Heaven. This sets off warning bells! It then parodies the child’s or a savage’s faith - and then conflates the silly with the profound - harps and golden streets and the family reunion. 

But the family is the best, and literal, picture of the nature of reality; and of the pupose of creation.

Then Lewis says what he understand Heaven really-is like: perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no movement, no mirth, no events, no time, no art. 

Contrast this with the repeated demonstrates in the Fourth Gospel of how the life everlasting is about qualitative enhancements, trasformations of earthly things.

When I read this kind of passage in Christian writers such as Lewis, it becomes clearer to me why Christians through the ages have had trouble in explaining the faith, and making it appealing - and why its joy and Good News are so often obscured. I personally can feel the appeal of the Via Negativa, and its roots in Greek Platonic philosophy; but to the mass of Men, such a life is a real horror and terror.

No wonder that even the simplest depiction of an afterlife in terms of an earthly paradise, have such appeal to so many people. No wonder the appeal of Christianity has so often been in negative terms of escape from a Hell of torment...

Unless and until Christians can know Jesus's message as Good News, and Heaven as a desirable place and situation - we really don't have much of a chance at saving those who need it!


Hrothgar said...

Lewis often strikes me as one of those people whose imagination was generally a more secure guide to truth than his intellect. Otherwise it may have indicated his most deeply held convictions over the beliefs of his more facile public persona - these perhaps being uncomfortable to agknowledge, even partially hidden from himself. Such considerations apply particularly when, as in this case, the intellect seems to have felt the need to compromise with (indeed, almost surrender to) certain aspects of contemporary worldliness in order that the typical contemporary "educated" worldling might be more willing to hear what he has to say.

Or to put it another way: he reminds me of a chef who became so concerned that his customers would not find his basic ingredients palatable, that in the end, like some kind of strange nouvelle cuisine, he did not dare to include them at all, but presented only philosophical sauce and intellectual seasoning, artistically arranged on a rather bland white plate, bereft of the hearty and nourishing meat and vegetables that would actually have made the meal worth consuming.

The more imaginative depiction of Heaven he shows us in "The Great Divorce" espouses rougly the opposite outlook. I'm sure you've read it, but just to summarize: It appears to contemplate a Heaven that contrasts with Hell most essentially by being more materially substantial, experienced by its denizens as more "real" and solid, more fixed and definite in its perceptible attributes - while enabling the potential for precisely that individual growth and evolution to higher levels of functioning (an evolution which in itself implies the need for being present in time in some way) that he shows to be impossible in static, shadowy Hell, while souls remain there. I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that this contrast occurs precisely because the latter IS static and shadowy, while the former is vital, real, affected by time and possesses material attributes. Yet in this essay he posits the highest possible Christian ideal as being a realm equally static and insubstantial to the actual Hell he imagined elsewhere - with only the sight of a (presumably equally static) God to alleviate the eternal tedium.

Bruce Charlton said...

I agree. As time goes by I get more from Lewis's imaginative writing, and less from the essays. Garfield regarded them as two different Lewises.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Lewis is perhaps focusing on explaining the difficulty more than lauding it.

That is, he is expressing sympathy for the 'educated intellect' that does not readily access the richness of a full and living human experience in which the necessity of real justice is felt as strongly as the desire for mercy.

And giving a sop to the pride which inevitably accompanies that 'intellectuality', of which mental exercise narcissistic supply the entire point.

Such a sop may indeed be inevitably an error, but without it there is no possibility of even having a discussion at all.

Seijio Arakawa said...

The irony had always seemed quite palpable to me, of Lewis writing an essay asserting that Heaven has 'no movement', contrasted with the end of The Last Battle where one of the very first scenes on arriving in Heaven is a long and very vivid sequence devoted to running almost purely for the sake of running.

Two Lewises indeed.

Unknown said...

What strikes me from C S Lewis after reading "The Great Divorce" and the first two chapters of "The problem of Pain" is how such a brilliant man with such an understanding of christian doctrine died a protestant.

Protestantism is a heresy, and therefore loaded with errors. Hence, logical argumentations from protestants will carry on the erroneous dogmas over which they are built.

Paraphrasing him in his prologue of "The Great Divorce": 'A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on'.

Thanks for the essay.

Bruce Charlton said...

@unknown, interestingly, Lewis became more Catholic in his practice over the decades; for example he attended confession. But at that time Anglo Catholicism was very strong. Some well informed scholars think Lewis might have become an RC, he was also quite involved with a Russian Orthodox group. If he had lived as long as Barfield he would have had to leave the CoE, I think.

Seijio Arakawa said...

To me, the point of view taken in Transposition doesn’t seem particularly Catholic or Protestant in itself. The thinker who reminds me most of the Transposition model is Ed Feser, an Aristotelian-Thomist Catholic with some impassioned essays arguing against the presence of any animals in Heaven, saying (approximately) that animals lack a rational soul and are therefore not resurrectable, that arguments supporting the presence of dogs in Heaven would logically also entail the presence of nasty and parasitic forms of life such as tapeworms, etc.... Thus, Feser concludes, anyone who expects Heaven to include such a mundane experience as playing Frisbee with Fido is operating under a fallacy.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Protestantism is mainly a heresy in that it accepts the Roman heresy involved in Catholicism as a premise. In other words, it tries to leave behind 'what is wrong' with Roman Catholicism rather than accepting that Roman Catholicism was already a complete break with Christianity.

The great apostasy soon after the deaths of the initial apostles essentially rejected the notion that service to God was incompatible with service to mammon, and thus created a church categorically defined by service to mammon, that is, by how effective it was as a tool of supporting unjust tyranny.

But perhaps a comment of this sort is not precisely helpful to the task of encouraging all people to look beyond what the world teaches about Christianity to what Christ teaches.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SA It depends on the metaphysical assumptions - I would regard several Thomist conclusions as refuting the assumptions. Another is that married couples should have sex only for procreation.


Bruce Charlton said...

Seijio- ignore the above CAL.

CCL- fair point generally applicable... It was a massive compromise to make any institution primary, which could only last until people became aware of it.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Yes, I think that's a better way of putting it.

All institutional churches fall into the trap of preaching their own worldly authority rather than God's eternal authorship. One can say that it is even a danger for non-institutional churches, certainly it is common enough for those who reject all organized religion to do so simply because they want to be the master of their own little church.

But while all fall into the trap, some do so more than others, and others make more of an effort to get out of the trap as much as possible. It's a bit paradoxical, but organized religion is necessary precisely because of the trap into which it inevitably falls...because the trap will catch the spiritually unwary whether or not they are responsible for leading a church which has any other members.

That is to say, I myself attend church despite the obvious difficulties and shortcomings. Because in the main, not having a church would be worse for most, so one must simply accept the burden of trying to encourage religion while resisting institution.

C.S. Lewis taught this as well, though I disagree with the statement that it really doesn't matter which church you belong to as long as you earnestly belong, I can see the difficulty of saying anything else if you want to emphasize the unhelpfulness of arguing over which church is the most false.

Then again, I really think that it is entirely possible to be soundly religious without insisting on anyone else affirming every point of your personal beliefs. It may not be possible for everyone, but those for whom it is not may be harmed (spiritually, I mean) by belonging to any religious faction as much as by not having the support of one.

It is like the argument I sometimes have with anarchists...governments may be essentially bad, but what are you going to do when organized criminals come after you if you don't have your own violent organization to fight them? It may not be that Christ ever wanted there to be any institutionalized church, but which is worse, having a monopoly of religious organization or having a diversity?

The history of Christianity answers the question adequately for me. If there are any institutions of religion, it is better that there should be many rather than only one.

Further, while I think it possible to be soundly religious without belonging to a church, I doubt it is really all that easy compared to being soundly religious while belonging to the least harmful church you can find. At least in a day and age when there are so many options.

Unknown said...

"The history of Christianity answers the question adequately for me. If there are any institutions of religion, it is better that there should be many rather than only one."

"You are Peter and over this rock I shall build my Church".

Do you realize that "Church" is singular? Therefore "many churches" is NOT a good sign, but a sign of division. Christ himself prays to the Father and says: "Father, grant them to be one as you and I are one".

Don't have time to go through the rest of the errors in your message.

Bruce Charlton said...

Ccl & U - Ive been on both sides of this debate, and thre Orthodox side too (eg whe I wrote Thought Prison)... As usual, the division comes at the level of primary, metaphysical assumptions, which an individual - nowadays - ought to clarify and know for himself.

Bruce Charlton said...

Ccl I agree with you, but want to close this thread...