Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Last Battle

The November 21 issue of The New Yorker has an interesting essay on C. S. Lewis by Adam Gopnik (pp. 88-93, available online here). In light of the intense interest that Christians take in Lewis, it is interesting to read the impressions of somebody who appears to be an outsider. The most salutary element of the essay, I think, is its sense of detachment and objectivity. There is no hero worship here, though his treatment of Lewis is entirely fair minded.

There are limitations to fairness and objectivity, however--strange though that may sound. This is especially apparent when one is reading the comments of what I have called an "outsider" (the more traditional term, "pagan", is fast becoming one of my favorites, but it is too often misconstrued as suggesting allegiance to some sort of weird earth religion; the word itself is of Latin origin--it was the term used by Roman soldiers for civilians, folks who were "outsiders" to the military community. The word was later adopted by the beseiged Christians who saw themselves as the Church Militant in a world of non-believing "civilians", outsiders to the faith). One gets the sense that, as my students sometimes put it, the outsider just doesn't "get it":
In fact, it seems much easier to believe in the power of the Romantic numinous if you do not take a controversial incident in Jewish religious history as the pivot point of all existence, and a still more controversial one in British royal history as the pivot point of your daily practice. Converted to faith as the means of joy, however, Lewis never stops to ask very hard why this faith rather than some other. His favorite argument for the truth of Christianity is that either Jesus had to be crazy to say the things he did or what he said must be true, and since he doesn’t sound like someone who is crazy, he must be right. (He liked this argument so much that he repeats it in allegorical form in the Narnia books; either Lucy is lying about Narnia, or mad, or she must have seen what she claimed to see.) Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it.
Gopnik has a point here: it does look rather convenient, in some sense, this religion that appears to explain things in just the way we would most like them to be explained. But of course the convenience does not alter the possibility that it may, in fact, be true. This is a very subtle point, but one that ought not be allowed to slip by unnoticed. What we have here is a fallacious suggestion that precisely because this religious outlook fits in with certain presuppositions and expectations of the believers themselves we are justified in even greater skepticism regarding its truth than if it taught something truly outlanding and bizarre. That is very much akin to a scientist saying something like, "Gee, this experiment gave us results corresponding exactly to the hypothesis that we were working with, so of course we have no reason to believe this hypothesis! Now, if our results had been totally unexpected and completely different from what our hypothesis predicted, then we would have reason to believe it!"

This is reminiscent of a fallacy committed very often in the postmodern tradition, the so-called "genetic fallacy", the mistake of claiming that because we can show the historical origins of a certain belief to have been such-and-such the belief itself must be false. For example, Freud, famously, argued that we need not believe in God because he thought he could show that the only reason that people believe in God at all is because they have certain psychological needs that are met by the belief, and Nietzsche argued that traditional morality is totally arbitrary and without rational support because it had its origins in a will to power rather than in something objectively true for everyone. And of course we still see this fallacy being committed, as when Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins fallaciously argue that, now that we know how life really came about, there is no rational reason to believe in any religion at all. All of these fallacies take any kind of striking coincidence between what people want to believe and what they do, in fact, believe to be proof positive that the belief itself is false. I'm sure it's a very comforting thought to the likes of Dennett and Dawkins to believe that they've put the issue to rest permanently--indeed, I would bet that it's just what they want to believe.

There is an aspect to Gopnik's assessment, though, that I think is about right: Lewis is a much better storyteller when he's not preaching. That is, the Narnia books are much more exciting when they are simply telling a good story--The Horse and His Boy, for example, or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or The Silver Chair. These installments in the Chronicles have little "theology" in them, and they are arguably much better books than, say The Last Battle, which tries way too hard to cram Christian symbolism into an account of the end of Narnia. And Gopnik also takes a moment out of his narrative to put away, in a single paragraph, what many books and articles have asserted about one of the other Inklings:
Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis’s avid sponsorship of Tolkien’s own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse. Though Tolkien was certainly a devout Catholic, there is no way in which “The Lord of the Rings” is a Christian book, much less a Catholic allegory. The Blessed Land across the sea is a retreat for the already immortal, not, except for Frodo, a reward for the afflicted; dead is dead. The pathos of Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage is that, after Aragorn’s death, they will never meet again, in Valinor or elsewhere. It is the modernity of the existential arrangement, in tension with the archaicism of the material culture, that makes Tolkien’s myth haunting.
"No way in which LOTR is a Christian book'! Them's fightin' words over at Ignatius Press! But I am tempted to agree--I've had many conversations with friends over alleged Christian themes in Tolkien including, I kid you not, a claim made by a very good friend and excellent classical scholar (and evangelical protestant) that Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin in disguise, and I've always had a hard time swallowing it.

Predictably, however, Gopnik goes where everyone goes these days, claiming that Lewis finally became a great writer when he started having sex with Joy Davidman (who, he says, "Yokoishly insinuated herself into Lewis's life". How did the talentless and forgettable Yoko Ono wind up being such a cultural icon? Nobody remembers the name of Brian Wilson's psychiatrist, after all). When will it be OK to have intellectual and artistic interests that are not merely hedonistic in their orientation? In particular, Gopnik is only satisfied with Lewis' faith when it is most fragile:
When Joy died, of bone cancer, a few years later, he was abject with sadness, and it produced “A Grief Portrayed,” one of the finest books written about mourning. Lewis, without abandoning his God, begins to treat him as something other than a dispenser of vacuous bromides. “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think,” he wrote, and his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like: questioning, unsure—a dangerous quest rather than a querulous dogma. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.
But of course. Anyone who has no doubts is just a moron. Shades of Anthony Grafton. Sure enough, only an outsider could have written those lines. Like the perplexed child who thinks his parents are unfair because they don't see things his way, the outsider cannot abide a believer who is not at least tempted by unbelief. The less tempted you are to abandon your faith, the more irrational your faith is. It has to be, to the outsider, because he hsa abandoned faith and he does not want to seem, well, like he is the irrational one. And if you can turn it around and say that it is the believer who believes what he wants to believe, rather than the unbeliever who rejects what he wants to reject, then so much the better.

At the end of The Last Battle, as the dwarves are sitting in the dark stable, uncomprehending of all that is going on around them, everything said by the people in the stable with them and by Aslan himself sounds like gibberish to them. The Last Battle is my least favorite Narnia book, but in that image I think Lewis hit upon the attitude of the outsider with deadly accuracy.


LBowman said...

I was led to your blog by our similar libraries on "LibraryThing."

Thanks for this essay. The scene of the dwarves in the stable in the Last Battle has stayed with me throughout my life as a powerful explanatory image. You are right that it is not only believers who want to believe what they do; and that that desire does not, in either case, prove anything at all about the truth or falsity of what they believe.

You mention "The Silver Chair" as a theology-light book, and this is true, but one scene in it has also stayed with me: the scene where the witch throws some kind of powder on the fire, and begins to sing (magically), and works on persuading the children that the Overworld doesn't exist. because they can only describe the Overworld in terms of what they can see around them, so the sun is like that lamp but bigger, and hotter, and hangs in the sky, they must have made it all up; invented a bigger, hotter, invisibly suspended lamp in a 'sky' that they've invented by analogy to the roof over their heads. And such is her enchantment and her persuasion that the children are giving in, when Puddleglum stamps on the fire, putting most of it out, and says he'd rather die believing in something he's invented, then, than accept that the Underworld is all there is. But in fact, the reader knows the sun exists. I have been proof, ever since, against arguments that attack analogy.

My reading of "A Grief Observed" is, rather, that it shows us Lewis astonishingly hanging onto his faith, even in the worst of his grief; but being very honest about how it feels.

Scott Carson said...

Thanks very much for your kind words. I, too, very much enjoyed that scene from the Silver Chair (and not just because off all the not-so-cryptic references to Platonism!).

I think that Gopnik would agree, finally, with your reading of A Grief Observed--I didn't mean to exaggerate his distance from it. It is interesting to me, though, that he said virtually nothing at all about Till We Have Faces.