C S Lewis and the translation of medieval Creation-focus for today

OutOfTheSilentPlanetIt’s always hard to do the cultural translation necessary to benefit from the lessons of a past age. We are not medieval people. We don’t believe that lions are born dead and resurrected by the breath of their parents three days later, or that pelicans revive their dead young by piercing their own bodies and feeding their blood to them. Nor are we as ready to see God in every roadside shrine, storm, or twist of fortune. So how are we to appropriate the sense of the wonder and “livingness” of creation, and the sacramentalism, of that earlier age? At the end of the creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I return to Lewis for answers

Finally, however, how are we to derive new practice from the age of unicorns and self-mutilating pelicans? Isn’t it a bit much to ask moderns to accept all this neoplatonic mysticism and fanciful symbolism? Once again we turn to our guide, C. S. Lewis. Lewis represented the medieval balance on creation nicely.

Lewis appreciated both the material world’s quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). From his first Oxford friend, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, he got, as he put it, an “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature.” Walking about with Jenkin, he learned “in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge,” and so “rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” (199)

Not only was this quiddity of things something to be enjoyed, but it also pointed us to objective truth. The beauty of a waterfall was something inherent to the waterfall – not a trick of the subjective mind of a human. And Lewis was actually concerned for the souls of those who did not see this (in his Abolition of Man). He knew that when a person saw a he waterfall, they were seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

Lewis really did believe he could see God’s own beauty through his sense perceptions of the material. Moreover, he believed that as he did see in this way, he was actually peering through the less real, the less solid, to the more real, since God is the realest and most solid thing there is (which is why the shades of The Great Divorce hurt their feet on the sharp grass of heaven). He was, in other words, an Augustinian, Pseudo-Dionysian, Neoplatonist—that is, medieval—dinosaur thumping about in a modern materialist age.

Not just God’s beauty but also his personal and moral attributes become accessible to us in his Creation. Lewis explains, in a letter, James’s image of God as ” the Father of lights”: “He is pure Light. All the heat that in us is lust or anger in Him is cool light–eternal morning, eternal freshness, eternal springtime: never disturbed, never strained. Go out in early summer before the world is awake and see, not the thing itself, but the material symbol of it.'”[1]

That’s the sacramental quality – to see God’s attributes, you find the “material symbol” in earthly phenomena. Note that Male says the four seasons all have Christian meanings in the Middle Ages: “Spring, which gives new life to the world, is the symbol of baptism which renews the spirit of man at his entrance into life. Summer too is a type, for its burning heat and light are reminders of the light of another world and of the ardent love of the eternal life. Autumn, season of harvest and vintage, is the dread symbol of the last Judgment—that great Day on which men will reap as they have sown. Winter is a shadow of that death which awaits mankind and the universe.”[2] Imagine being surrounded by reminders of God in every season!

Lewis’s medieval, sacramental perception of matter emerges in various forms throughout his imaginative as well as his expository writings, from the creation narrative of Perelandra and the redemption narrative of That Hideous Strength to the talking animals of Narnia. In the latter case, as Michael Muth has argued, he built his talking animals on medieval bestiaries, which themselves functioned—Lewis once said (in Allegory of Love)—sacramentally. In so many ways, Lewis posed the stuff and creatures of this world act as symbols or sacraments of a higher reality (or, as in the case of the endragoning of Eustace, a lower but still super-natural reality). In fact, as he preached so powerfully in his sermon “Transposition,” given on Pentecost 1944, the material world is the only way we can see the immaterial. That’s just the sort of “rattletrap” creatures we are.

The question that Lewis frames in “Transposition” goes like this: “If we have really been visited by a revelation from beyond Nature, is it not very strange that an Apocalypse [That is, the Bible’s Book of Revelation] can furnish heaven with nothing more than selections from terrestrial experience (crowns, thrones, and music), that devotion can find no language but that of human lovers, and that the rite whereby Christians enact a mystical union should turn out to be only the old, familiar act of eating and drinking?”

He answers this question at the end of the Narnian Chronicles, as Lord Digory says, speaking of that the Narnia the children had experienced, “That was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here; just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia. . . . And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato. Bless me! What do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed.”

It is finally Lewis’s apologetic from desire that points us to a helpful modern appropriation of the medieval sacramentalist approach to the natural world. Lewis had said in a letter to his brother Warren that “the ‘vague something’ which has been suggested to one’s mind as desirable, all one’s life, in experience of nature and music and poetry . . . and which rouses desires that no finite object pretends to satisfy, can be argued not to be any product of our own minds.”[3] Our sensing self, interacting with the world through not only perception but also desire, leads us toward something real and objective beyond our subjectivity: it leads us toward God. Certainly, it can also hinder us from God, as Plato, the Neoplatonists, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Augustine had all taught. It can also lead us to God, albeit sometimes by negative example and by suffering—by the sinfulness in ourselves that we stumble across as soon as we engage fully in that natural mode and world—as Gregory the Great had taught.

As I have suggested, some writers in the Dionysian, Neoplatonist tradition lost the sense that the material world can lead us to the spiritual, insisting instead on an ascetic denial of all worldly things in favor of pure spiritual contemplation. The anonymous author of the Theologia Germanica, a book Lewis read and annotated heavily, and indeed appreciated for many of its emphases, was one of these. In one passage, he describes Christ as being able at all times to keep one eye on “nature” and the other on God. But then the author turns and says that we humans cannot do the same: we must “shut the eye of nature”—of our natural, material preoccupations and desires—if we are to open the spiritual eye that sees God. And this in fact explains why we must completely deny ourselves—our desires—if we are to come to God and achieve union. When Lewis came across this, he jotted a single, terse critical annotation: “In other words we must be essentially unlike the Lord?” He clearly recognized that the Christian warrant for travelling the “Affirmative Way,” encountering the material world as a place rich with sacramental meaning, was the Incarnation of our Lord. Being perceptive about the natural world—keeping that “natural eye” open—was for Lewis an essential part of the way to God, and the incarnation of God in an actual, flesh-and-blood human being, Jesus Christ, proved it.

Again, it makes sense that Lewis would push back in this way against this disjunctive facet of Neoplatonic mysticism. After all, he very famously taught that our natural desires—our yearning that is triggered by our experiences of what is good and beautiful in the world—in fact can lead us toward God. Indeed he insisted that he himself had come to God in this way, so that he called himself an “empirical theist.”[4] And that, perhaps, is the most solid lesson we can learn from the medieval approach to creation: we must resist the modern proponents of the sterner side of the Neoplatonic stream, the “Gnostics” who suspect that since everything about the natural life can lead us away from God (and as we’ve seen, Lewis agreed with this Augustinian point), therefore we must do all we can to wean ourselves from any desire that would focus on the natural (or indeed social) reality.

To that suspicion, the appropriate answer is the one Lewis gave in “Transposition”: this world is finally the only one we know. If it cannot help us get to God, along the “Affirmative Way,” then we are finally without help. Thus we may appropriately both celebrate the many ways the Created ways meet and satisfy our desires, and at the same time attend to that final reality to which this world points – the “beyond” that causes in us a yearning that the natural world can never fulfill.

This affirmative understanding of creation as conduit to God takes its most exalted form in Lewis’s portrayal, in That Hideous Strength, of how a sanctified sexuality can play a role in bringing us to wholeness. In that book’s culmination, in a thoroughly Williamsesque and indeed Beatrician way, Lewis shows us Mark Studdock returning to spiritual health and integrity as he joins with Jane in the marital bed, under the joyous superintending of Venus come down from the heavens.

This is eros in its most potent form, and would certainly seem a vote for continuity between nature and grace. Again, in “Transposition” Lewis explains that in fact only our natural experiences can lead us to God, for we have no other mode or vocabulary with which to understand him. Humans vis-à-vis divinity are like “flatlanders”—people living in a wholly two-dimensional world—straining to relate to the three-dimensional world. It is finally only our prosaic experiences in our “flat,” merely “natural” world, and the words and concepts we form to describe that world, which lead us upward, breaking us through our limitations and showing us—in a dim and imperfect way—that other divine world for which we have yearned all along.

[1] Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Sept 12, 1933, in Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 2; Cited in Downing, Into the Region of Awe, 45.

[2] Male, 31.

[3] Oct 24, 1931, in Letters, 143-144.

[4] In writing a preface for the third edition of his Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis makes this explicit: “‘I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire.” Lewis, preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress, 9. (Barkman, 90)

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