Thursday 8 December 2022

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward (2010) - and my reflections on CS Lewis's medieval Christianity

I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in primary school - perhaps after watching a dramatized version on television; then The Silver Chair - but did not read any other of the Narnia Chronicles as a child. Indeed, I did not read them until the past decade, after I had become a Christian; and I came to the books via Brian Sibley's superb BBC Radio dramatizations

Yest, despite this very delayed, and rather gradual, path to appreciation; I now recognize the Narnia books as among the very best of their kind - and I return to re-read (and/ or re-listen) over and again; and have read several books of scholarship and analysis about them. 

Of these, Planet Narnia stands-out as the most impressive and memorable - not just for its insights into the world of Narnia, but also because it contains a great deal of absolutely fascinating and valuable information on the medieval world view, in particular the 'astrological' cosmology.   

Planet Narnia puts forward the interpretative key that each of the seven Narnia books is presided-over and permeated-by one of the seven medieval 'planets' - Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. 

I found Ward's evidence and argument completely convincing - which means that this is a remarkable and rare example of literary criticism - in exposing a major aspect of a major author's major work; that had been (apparently) completely hidden and undiscovered for more than half a century. 

I read the book a couple of years after it was published, and have just been re-listening to the audio version - and am impressed anew at the detail and thoroughness with which PN is argued. 

But this time of reading, my own understanding of Christianity has moved far away from that of Lewis - which was, pretty much, where it began; since Lewis was very important in my own conversion. 

Now, I find myself somewhat amazed, and rather appalled, at the complexity and subtlety of CS Lewis's style of Christianity, both his personal faith and his public apologetics and devotional work. 

Lewis has long had the reputation of being a plain speaker and tough arguer - yet his discussions of Christianity - of the nature of God, the nature and mission of Christ, the nature of virtue and sin, and so forth - seems to demand quite extraordinary powers of concentration, memory, and contextual scholarship. 

Now, my feeling is: This cannot be right! 

It (surely?) cannot be necessary

It (surely?) cannot be that the 'religion' (shall we call it?) founded by Jesus would really be such as to need such an apparatus of specific expertise and authority - given that God created this varied and changing world, and a multitude of extremely different individual people living in a very wide range of social circumstances...

Lewis does as good a job as anyone of 'explaining' the inexplicable aspects of traditional Christianity; but I now feel sure that the inexplicable aspects are the consequence of human misinterpretation - not a part of God's plan or Jesus's ministry.  

In other words, the 'explanations' do not really explain - they merely kick the can - when they ought to be challenging the premises. Like 'explaining' my evil by Adam's transgression, or Adam's evil by the devil, or blaming the devil's evil on his prideful rejection of God... 

None of these displacements get any closer to explaining how there is any evil At All in a creation made by a wholly-Good God; if that God is also assumed to have made everything from nothing and been omnipotent.

(The simple answer is that God is Not omnipotent - whatever that really means; and Jesus never said he was! Indeed, Christianity depends on God Not being omnipotent.)  

Or; Lewis does as good a job as anyone of the explaining how Christ is both God and Man - when God is regarded as both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent. 

Or how God lives out of time and knows all that happened and will happen - yet Man lives in time, and has free agency. Or how God is both a monotheistic unity; and also divided into three persons.  

But in the end, these are just hypnotic word webs that are attempting to enable belief in inherited incompatible doctrines.  

But how is it that incompatible doctrines were not a problem for so many centuries? Lewis himself shows us the reason - and why what once worked as Christian belief, no longer works. 

CS Lewis was indeed, as he claimed to be, a 'dinosaur' - the last of the medieval minds. He was a Man whose mind was essentially medieval - which (by my understanding) was a transitional mind between the pre-historic almost-unconscious and immersive simplicities of animism, and modern alienated individuality. 

This middle consciousness has both elements of ancient unconscious participation and also (to an exceptionally high degree, more than modern Man) the abstracting and intellectualizing tendency. 

It is, indeed, the automatic and instinctual spirituality, mysticism and supernaturalism of a mind like CS Lewis's; that enables him to embrace such logically rigorous complexities of theology - without destroying his faith. 

It was because Lewis (like the medievals) had a foot in the ancient animistic world of a universe of Beings, that he was able wholeheartedly to embrace a faith rooted in abstract reasoning. One foot in the past, the other in modernity; his mind's instinctual unconscious irrationality was strongly operative, even when he was using cold logic, discussing detached attributes and aspects, or deploying reductionistic, analytic modelling of reality.

We Modern Men find that abstraction and intellectuality deaden and demotivate; and then they become dishonest. Lacking such a foot-in-the-past and the consequent prior motivational truthfulness, then rigour dissolves into expediency (as we see with the near-total corruption of science over recent decades). 

Instead of combining unconscious rootedness with explicit rigour; Modern Man oscillates-between incoherent, vacillating emotions - and lying, manipulative modelling.

We have inherited much the same - and incoherent, off-centred - doctrines of Christianity as in Lewis's day; but have lost our roots in spontaneous tradition and common sense. 

Typical, representative, modern Man is severely innerly-de-motivated; such that he cannot resist the short-term expedient. 

But those who recognize the unsatisfactoriness of  the typical mainstream modern condition no longer have the Lewisian possibility of sustaining a serious and motivating Medieval consciousness. 

Such is Lewis's charisma, and our gratitude to him for his unequalled success as a Christian apologist in modern times; that there is a danger in trying to emulate his faith and its basis. 

However; emulation is not possible - we, now, are fundamentally different consciousnesses from Lewis; and to attempt to replicate Lewis is merely to mimic. 

And (de facto) mimicry is grossly insufficient as a basis for Christian living in these End Times.  

So we can learn a great deal from CS Lewis; but should not try to replicate and sustain his theology. Many of those who tried to do sustain Lewis's specific metaphysical and theological ideas - and his lifestyle advice -  have, so far as I can tell, failed the Litmus Test issues of our time. 

That is; rigorous, high-status, Lewis scholars and disciples often have converged with mainstream totalitarian leftism - and thereby (overall) joined sides with the powers of evil and against God. 

In other words; one can be a devoted Lewisite, and live as a Lewisite Christian - yet be an enemy of Christ!

So far, so depressing! Yet this disastrous (albeit covert) mass apostasy has a positive aspect. 

If we can recognize that someone can adhere to the letter of CS Lewis's theology and doctrines (and the same applies for all other theologies and doctrines) - yet not be a real Christian; this implies an opposite: that real Christianity is separable from metaphysics, theology and doctrine

If we can recognize that being a real Christian has independence from Lewis's specific metaphysics, theology and all the rest of it - and at the same time can recognize that the Narnia Chronicles are imaginatively-permeated with a real, various and rich Christian spirit...

Then maybe the path is clear to understanding what it is to be a real Christian independently of the classical and traditional structures that came to us via the middle ages

The path is opened to a Romantic Christianity that motivates us to adhere to the side of God and the commitment to follow Jesus Christ through the pressures and corruptions of these End Times - while also recognizing a common real-Christianity, and the possibility of genuinely-Christian alliance, across many denominations and churches. 


Jack said...

I agree with everything you say here! Especially the essential medievalness of Lewis' mind; something which I think he shared with Tolkien, although Tolkien embodied more the imaginative aspect of the medieval consciousness, whereas Lewis did the intellectual aspect. I think it's quite remarkable on reflection that they 'managed' this in the midst of early 20th century western civilisation. I think they had a very important witness to bear — that the modern world ought to be a transcending of, that is a fulfilment of, the medieval spirit, and not a mere disposal of it. A lot of the primary modern souls, men like Voltaire, have embodied a merely superficial anti-medievalism which has left us more exposed to the evil spiritual influences of the modern age, to which our medieval inheritance would have, in some respects, been a bulwark. Chesterton is another one who had this same mission. Note how the literature of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton is not nearly as sophisticated (just on a purely literary level) as say the Modernist poets of Eliot, Pound and Rilke. I think it's because the Modernists were more willing to embody the consciousness soul, whereas the medievalists were wary of it. Taking up the consciousness soul, they were able to express themselves in a more advanced way. Yet there were severe disadvantages to this! I can't describe how much I despise the poetry of Eliot. I can't read it without extreme annoyance, and it actually makes me upset when people quote his work reverentially. I think he more than anyone else is responsible for the demise/decline of poetry as an art form, and I regard it as a huge injustice that he's seen as a Great Poet and an exemplar of the Western Canon; and since the Modernist movement was our last great literary movement, Eliot has de facto become the last of all the poets, the summary of a 2500 yr old tradition. It appalls me... I've gone round looking for fellow haters of Eliot, but they're hard to find (academia worships him sycophantically, I think for sinister reasons — his poetry puts on airs of Christian propheticism, but beneath the surface it's mechanical and Ahrimanic, well suited to the Academic agenda). So it was enormously gratifying to discover that Lewis himself despised Eliot's poetry, and not only that, but I gather for the same basic reasons I do (it wallows in filth and despair)! I was so glad to find a fellow sufferer in Lewis, someone who finally 'got it'. I don't hate Modernism as such either. I enjoy Pound's craftsmanship, see Rilke as a truly stupendous genius, can't read Yeats without great pleasure (though Yeats is as much a romantic as a modernist), and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa is one of my favourite writers of all time, and I think he's the true genius of the Modernist movement (not the bloody second rate Eliot) and the greatest poet of the consciousness soul, greater than Shakespeare, Goethe, or Whitman in this respect!I just hate Eliot! Thank God heaven sent us Lewis as a counter-argument! But you're right, in some important respects his defense of Christianity is lacking and misleading. I think this is precisely because as you say, he experienced Christianity from a pre-modern point of view, and so was unable to establish its relevance to the current age and human soul development; however, that's not really a bad thing, because as with Tolkien and Chesterton, it was important than *somebody* state the case for preserving the treasures of the middle ages, and not merely jettisoning them à la Voltaire. A Modernist poem that does a great job of grasping Christianity from a modern state of consciousness soul is Frances Thompson's The Hound of Heaven.

Jack said...

If you're not familiar with Pessoa, start here
Pessoa wrote in alter egos ('heteronyms'). He split his consciousness into distinct, living people and wrote poetry from the perspective of each, such that each alter ego has its own distinct literary style. What a genius method of exploring the consciousness soul! This heteronym is Alberto Caeiro, my favourite. He's the least sophisticated but the most spiritually elevated of all Pessoa's alter egos. Make sure to read the introduction and the long notes at the bottom, written by two more alter egos!-l—Ricardo Reis (the most sophisticated) and Alvaro de Campos (the most worldly and energetic). They're just as important as the poems themselves. As for the poems... reading them the first time had a powerful effect on me comparable to reading the New Testament or the Tao Te Ching.

Michael Dyer said...

I don’t think the Christianity of CS Lewis actually requires the scholarship and intellectuality that he shows, and if I understand him properly, he doesn’t think so either. He said that the “come to Jesus” evangelism is actually the most powerful, he just can’t do it well. Which is fair because that may not be a gift God gave him.

The surface is basic, but it can be drilled deeper, is the idea as I see it.

I also don’t necessarily see the corollary about adhering to doctrine and being an enemy of Christ. For example, Jesus told His disciples to obey the Pharisees, and much of Pharisee doctrine was correct, orthodox, but they did not adhere to all of God’s doctrines internally. The problem wasn’t what they believed it’s what they didn’t believe but pretended they did. Pharisees and Sadducees have been with us in spirit since the beginning I think, the temptation to add, subtract, obfuscate, or make a pretense about what God said.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - In rejecting Eliot, you should not forget to exempt Old Possum's book of Practical Cats...

My favourite modernist poet is High MacDiarmid.

But I agree that Eliot, who was very adept in his work - especially Prufrock; in a sense 'finished' English poetry; much as Schoenberg finished classical music, and Joyce did the same with the 'high art' novel or Picasso with Fine Art.

Modernism was a dead end, even when it achieved considerable artistic success (e.g. Joyce's prose in *parts* of Ulysses is superb).

I would say that Lewis did more than remind us of the middle ages, in his imaginative work - especially Narnia - he goes far beyond his own theology - as Owen Barfield commented. Likewise, Tolkien goes far beyond his own, obedience-based, Roman Catholicism.

It was Barfield who best theorized the Romantic Christianity of Lewis and Tolkien; as RJ Reilly explained in his seminal Romantic Religion.

Bruce Charlton said...

PS - I'm afraid that there is no point in recommending to me poetry in translation. I do not 'get' the poetry from translations of another language (not even Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe... ) - it just comes across as prosy-prose; so I have long since given up trying it.

The furthest I can reach is Middle English (Chaucer, Langland, Gawain poet etc) - which I learned in my middle teens. Anglo Saxon is too far, beyond reach.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael "For example, Jesus told His disciples to obey the Pharisees..."

I think what Jesus *must* have meant (because only his is coherent) was Not that the Pharisees were right, and that their religion ought to be adhered to; but that it was possible to believe as did the Pharisees, and also follow Christ (i.e. be a Christian).

In other words, there are Many ways to be a (real) Christian - a follower of Jesus Christ - in terms of the nature of religion practiced, or beliefs affirmed.

Many ways - but not All ways!

Because, on the other hand, if anyone (no matter what his religious practice) *takes the side of evil* in the spiritual war of this world; then he is denying and propagating sin, refusing to repent; and is not following Jesus Christ, but instead opposing Him.

Nicholas Fulford said...

"The simple answer is that God is Not omnipotent - whatever that really means; and Jesus never said he was! Indeed, Christianity depends on God Not being omnipotent."

If you dispense with omnipotence - and by extension omnipresence and omniscience, then there is that which is greater than and encompasses God. Isn't it a trifle problematic that there is a ground of being upon which God sits and is contingent from a Judeo-Christian perspective?

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - No problem (and the religion called 'Judeo-Christianity' is in reality just... Judaism - not Christianity!)

God is the creator - and Men inhabit God's creation. That is the distinction; but God wants Men to become "sons of God" and to contribute to creation.

Omnipotence was a concept from pre-Christian Greek-Roman paganism which (unfortunately) philosophically-absorbed the new religion of following Jesus.

This has never made for a coherent understanding of Jesus's essential life and work, because if God is omnipotent, then Jesus's life was Not necessary.

This is (I guess) why Islam arose as a more coherent monotheism; based around a genuinely omnipotent conception of God.

Either we have an essential and divine Christ; or we have omnipotent monotheism - but not both. If Christians want an omnipotent God more than they want an essential Christ; perhaps they are in the wrong religion?

Guy Jean said...

I also found Ward's "Planet Narnia" fascinating, altho, on reflection, I don't think it makes much difference to my appreciation and enjoyment of the stories; it just tells me Lewis was even cleverer and more knowledgeable than I already thought!

I've just finished Carpenter's "The Inklings", in which he accuses Lewis of an immature "boyishness". While that may have been true for Lewis as a debater, or in other areas of his life, I think it misses the mark when it comes to Lewis' fiction writing. I think Lewis and Tolkien were special because in addition to being academics, they were also creative writers. I think they both remembered, and still experienced, the thrill that myths and fairy-tales can evoke in children, can still feel and enjoy the impact such works can have on the emotions and the imagination. I suspect they thought that this could be used to guide a reader to experience truth. (I'm now reading Barfield's "Romanticism Comes of Age" which begins, at least, with a discussion of the imagination, and I suspect this was a topic of deep interest for Lewis and Tolkien, too.) They understood that this experience was vital (in all senses of the word), and they strove to write works that would evoke similar experiences in their readers. How to stimulate the imagination so that it is better prepared to properly experience and enjoy this creation.

I also dipped into Lewis' other, more overtly Christian, works, such as "Pilgrim's Regress" "Mere Christianity" and "The Great Divorce", but I couldn't get into them (tho "Regress" has some great lines). Too complicated. They are too full of theology, too much intellectualizing. Did Jesus teach theology? I don't think so. Because it's not necessary.

Lewis came to Christianity through reason and logic, and I think his natural bent for intellectualizing made him make something that is relatively simple into something complex and requiring much explication. I searched in "Surprised by Joy" for a description of his epiphany: the experience that tipped him into belief. But I couldn't find it. He just had conversations with Tolkien and Barfield, and... they persuaded him!

Bruce Charlton said...

@GJ - I discussed Carpenter's Inklings on my Inklings blog:

I don't take seriously Carpenter's evaluations of character, since he had an axe or two to grind in his books - aimed against Tolkien and Lewis, especially. And it is the most personally immature critics - such as Carpenter and AN Wilson - who are most prone to call Lewis immature - it's sometimes termed 'projection'!

My favourite of Lewis's non-fiction, Christian themed books are Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce (the SL taught me much about evil, and GD taught me about vital lessons about hell).

I think you missed the 'epiphany' of Lewis's conversion - it was exactly in that conversation with Tolkien - the section about real myth - as expanded in Tolkien's poem Mythopoea, and discussed by Lewis in his letters.

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from John Fitzgerald:

"Yes, Planet Narnia's a wonderful work. I remember when I read it for the first time thinking how right and apposite it felt. I don't know why I didn't come up with it myself to be honest! I've been reading and studying Dante a lot this past couple of years. Paradiso in particular and the poet's journey through the planets has a really Narnian feel. I've come to appreciate Narnia a lot more through reading and meditating on Dante and the whole Medieval worldview, which seems way more real to me than the current, somewhat pre-fabricated, paradigm feels. Another top book in this respect - 'The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis' by Jason M Baxter."