Tuesday, March 12, 2013

C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of Death (a draft)

Lewis reading an early draft of my book

One more chapter from C. S. Lewis in Crisis (set for 2014) in draft form. I mean, really in draft form. Let me know what you think. 

The deaths of two significant women define the boundaries of C. S. Lewis’s life, his mother and his wife. And right in middle of his life stands the long-term relationship with Jane Moore. His mother provided him with an early sense of comfort and joy. But her death initiated his realization of the horrors that stand around the borders life. There would be “no settled happiness.”[1] The death of his wife, Joy, stirred a profound crisis for Lewis. We do not have the same record of distress over the death of Mrs. Moore, perhaps because it was a release from her suffering and, to some degree, her tyranny of demands over Lewis.
      Here I must offer an aside on Lewis’s views of women, which may present a crisis for contemporary readers of Lewis. His early writing includes a dismissive attitude toward women in light of his time in the early twentieth century, when the world of Oxford was a male bastion.[2] He rarely encountered women who were equals intellectually. But, when he met Joy Davidman and eventually married her, he came to a different understanding of women—this one clearly held her own in arguments or “dialectics.” One of the discoveries of reading Joy’s copy of The Problem of Pain at the Wade Collection was her frank assessments of the book. In the margins on one page, she exclaims, “This is hardly Jack at his best.” And yet earlier, she underlines the phrase “dreaming inner warmth”[3] and comments: “This for such phrases I love him. What a perfect image of the secret self!”
      For that reason, Joy’s death brought a profound crisis—not only had he lost his companion, his soul mate, but it reminded him horribly of his mother’s death, a death that left two small boys without a mother, just as Joy’s did. Joy late arrival in Lewis’s life (he was almost sixty) brought a new understanding of, appropriately enough, joy. And so correspondingly, with her death, the cries of anguish are stunning: “Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away when you left?”[4]
      Between those boundaries, Lewis faced several other significant experiences with death. We also cannot overlook the fact that Lewis experienced death first-hand, and at a fairly young age, as a soldier in World War I. He spoke about the war and “the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses.”[5] War is one colossal death event. In fact, his famous pact with Paddy Moore to take of his mother was initiated by Paddy’s death in World War I. And he lived through the horrors of World War II. After all, Lewis sets The Chronicles of Narnia within the bombing raids of London.
      So death, in some way, confronts us all. It is not particular to atheists or believers. “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble,” as Job 14:1-2 soberly reminds us, “comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last.” One common assault on Christian faith is that it is generated to solve the problem of death and annihilation. But this is certainly not true for Lewis’s thought or his own experience. His resolution to this crisis of death emerged for him over time as his faith grew. And as I noted earlier, as we’ve already seen, Lewis concluded that God implanted us a desire, and a hope, for something beyond this life. That is a pointer that death—which marks our lives as boundaried—must have a resolution somewhere beyond this life, namely in heaven. Joy leads to hope in heaven. Still, even if God implants in us the desire for heaven, Lewis was quite convinced that we cannot seek life beyond this earth before we seek God.

      Faith in God first
      Lewis did not believe that proper religious faith “solved” the crisis of death. He was utterly convinced that faith in God must be our starting point.
      Put another way, Lewis himself did not believe in Christ (or early, God) because of a need to believe in life after death, he believed in life after death because of his faith: “I… was allowed for a whole year to believe in God and try—in some stumbling fashion—to obey Him before any belief in future life was given me.”[6] This he discerned in the ancient Jews who—in great contrast to their neighboring Egyptians—had no strong belief in an afterlife. It is, in fact, my experience as well.
      Similarly Lewis expressed disdain for those who valued immortality above knowing God. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis notes—with some level of horror and disdain—the story of a priest he knew who simply valued the afterlife without any belief in God,
an old, dirty, gabbling, tragic Irish parson who had long since lost his faith but retained his living. By the time I met him his only interest was the search for evidence of “human survival”… [and] the ravenous desire for personal immortality co-existed in him with (apparently) a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable.”[7]  
Lewis then comes to two conclusions of note: “I was too young and hard to suspect that what secretly moved him was a thirst for the happiness which had been wholly denied him on earth”—the argument from desire that I outlined earlier, but that reappears in this chapter. Secondly, Lewis, now in his early ‘20s concluded, “The whole question of immortality became rather disgusting to me. I shut it out.”[8] This comment—despite whatever clarity later reflection provides to what was probably a more muddled conclusion at the time—helps us to understand his comments in Reflections on the Psalms that he came to faith without a desire for immortality. This experience, it is likely, provided the context for his contention that faith in God first was healthier.
      Notably, Lewis’s feelings about the relationship of belief in immortality and God also worked in reverse: to believe meant that we desired heaven with God. Therefore we become more committed to afterlife. In about 1947, Lewis had some major musings on death: “I have, almost all my life, been quite unable to feel the horror of nonentity, of annihilation, which, say, Dr. Johnson felt so strongly. I felt it for the first time only in 1947. But that was after I had long been reconverted and thus began to know what life really is and what would have been lost by missing it.”[9]
      Still, Lewis came to terms with death in his final year. As he wrote to Mary Willis Sherburne (apparently because she was dying too): “Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of?”[10]
      The death of another: A Grief Observed
      So the resolution of death is not insistence on immortality, but belief in the immortal God who promises eternal life, or “heaven” in Lewis’s terminology. Once we have tasted a relationship with this God, we hate losing it. But just as death meets us individually and we can contemplate our own non-existence, we can also hit head-on the terrible reality of losing someone we love. The latter horror first hit Lewis when he was nine, with his mother’s demise, and then at the end of life with the death of Joy. Death of others was much harder to contemplate than his own. Here again, note Lewis’s poignantly beautiful style, that glimmers with a surprise in the very first sentence, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
      Lewis realized that our experience with the death of someone we treasure initiates not a moment, but a process of grief: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”[11] As I mentioned above, his honesty, particularly his anger even at Joy is striking. It both demonstrates the depth of this crisis. Most of all—death of another can shake our belief in God. And in Grief Observed, we see a new Lewis, a rawer still, and it is his honesty with God that remains the most arresting feature of this book: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.”[12]
      The death of another—and the closer that person is, the more we feel it—shakes us to the core. But the question of death does find response in the Christian doctrine of hope for the life to come.

      The reality of heaven and hell
      Probably as much as any writer, Lewis worked to make heaven a subject worthy of our reflection. Lewis in this passage seeks to describe “heaven,” our future life. (Our future is really a “new heaven and a new earth” but I hate to quibble with St. Clive.) He reflects on the way heaven will be a fulfillment of each person’s life in this striking passage:
The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.
 Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it -- made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.
      Heaven is our real home, but this is also the place to make a brief comment on the reality of hell. Since Lewis connected heaven with faith in God, conversely hell is moving away from God, who is the source of life. Lewis offers this astounding statement, which really works as a summary of his thought: “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” This view has been revived by the former mega-church rockstar pastor and writer, Rob Bell in Love Wins.[13] It is significant to note that Fuller Theological President Richard Mouw offered his own support of Bell—in the midst of the firestorm around the book—by comparing Bell’s views on hell to Lewis’s.
      As opposed to Bell’s flirtation with universalism (although he is not in Love Wins), Lewis was not a universalist. This fact unsettled Joy. When I read through her copy of The Problem of Pain, Lewis is responding to the assertion, “All will be saved,”: “If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?”[14] In the margin of her copy, Joy writes, “I think they will in the end.” Lewis would not make that connection: the will for him (as we’ve seen in the section on feelings) was essential. God must respect our will, the will to reject God. Hell then only makes sense in light of heaven. It is the refusal to accept the offer that God has given us. For this reason “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”[15]
      Hell for Lewis is really only a shadowy place, a place never meant for human beings.[16] What is truly real is heaven, even more real than our “shadow lands”[17] of earth. Here Lewis’s love of Plato—and particularly the latter’s sense that there is another world for which we all long and to which we are headed, the world of the Forms—colors his understanding. The most sustained literary treatment of the afterlife comes in his final installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, namely The Last Battle, where all the key protagonists are killed.[18] They see a world that is like their Narnia, but as Lucy explains, “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below….”[19] In case this sounds to the reader considerably like Plato’s Forms, Lord Digory explains it quite clearly, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”[20] Going to heaven means continuity with our earthly experience, but ultimately fulfillment.

Living in light of heaven
      “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.”[21] To take in the reality of heaven significantly our life in the here-and-now. Lewis’s vision of heaven was that there was fulfillment, but he could not be blamed for thinking that we what do today does not matter. At the Wade Collection, I had the unusual discovery of In an unpublished Manuscript (MS-190), named (somewhat uncreatively), “Fragment about the Parable of the Unjust Steward.” Lewis makes several points on this passage from Luke 16:1-9. Here are the final two:
4. The Summons, and the threatened dismissal from the stewardship means the steward’s realization – gradual, or leaping full-grown upon him in a doctor’s consulting room – that his employment under the World is temporary. He is going to get the sack. And to be given the sack by this employer is to die. In other words, the soul becomes aware that its real well being must be sought elsewhere. It undergoes conversion.” 5. Now comes the joke. For though this story has a very serious moral, it is in the form of a comic story. It is in fact the archtypically [sic] Jewish comic story, the joke the Jews never got tired of; the joke of spoiling the Egyptians or hanging Hanan on his gallows. Why not use all this property, which World [sic] has put in our hands, for the purposes to those World [sic] had in mind? Use it to feather nests for yourself in that region which the World has never dreamed of – by preaching the gospel, feeding the hungry, building a Christian home. [22]
To be sure, Lewis began to reformulate his ambitions in light of heaven. The fame he craved as a poet in his young adult years, he abandoned when he took on Christian faith. When it did arrive through apologetics and children’s fiction, he didn’t seem to care.
      Lewis helped me grasp how to understand earth in light of heaven. He also guided me to grasp the reality of our future hope. And here I trust the reader will allow me one more reflection on how Lewis’s reflections on heaven profoundly affected my own crisis the realization that I would did. While on a post-college celebratory vacation to France, I can remember reading Lewis’s insights about the afterlife from Reflections on the Psalms that knocked me off my metaphorical feet. He pointed out human beings are not made for time, but instead, for eternal life. And I remember several years later as a newly minted pastor—when I had to preach my first Easter sermon and sought to somehow make our hope for another, better life something real and vital for the congregation—I turned to Lewis to help me demonstrate where our recurrent human experience resonates resurrection. Here's that passage:
We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.[23]
 There is inside us that profound yearning for something transcendent, that surpasses time particularly. We are made for fulfillment, for heaven.
      God did seem to give Lewis a nice passing. When he almost died in the summer of 1963, he expressed some regret that he was brought back. But a few months later, just before his sixty-five birthday the pen of C. S. Lewis would never write another of his insights. I find the words of his brother spare and moving about his last day on earth:
Friday, the 22nd of November 1963, began much as other days: there was breakfast, then letters and the crossword puzzle…. Our few words then [at four] were the last: at five-thirty I heard a crash and ran in, to find him lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. He ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later.[24]
Warren could only add, in his brief memoir, “nothing worse could ever happen to me in the future.”[25] He too knew the sorrow of losing someone close. Indeed he could not bring himself to attend his beloved brother’s funeral.
      It’s clear what Lewis believed about heaven, and thus life after death. If he was right about what he wrote, his place is secure now. As he wrote so movingly in some of the final words from The Chronicles of Narnia:
All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.[26]

This is still a rough draft. So not all footnotes are complete.
[1] Surprised by Joy.
[2] I would even say that women defined Lewis’s life, but he also had an uneven relationship with women. An egregious example from Mere Christianity is his description of roles within marriage. However one views gender roles in the Bible, Lewis’s chapter is based simply on convention, not on any theological argument, or for that matter, sound reasoning. “If there must be a head, why the man? Well firstly, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” (Mere Christianity, 102). This smells of rank prejudice; it hardly seems fitting to Lewis’s thoughtfulness.
[3] In her copy, it was page 128.
[4] Grief Observed.
[5] Surprised by Joy, 196.
[6] Reflections on the Psalms, 42.
[7] Surprised by Joy.
[8] Surprised by Joy, 202.
[9] Surprised by Joy, 117, Cited in Jacobs, xiv.
[10] 17 June 1963 Letter. Letters III: 1430.
[11] A Grief Observed.
[12] A Grief Observed.
[13] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, reprint edition (HarperOne, 2012).
[14] The Problem of Pain, 119.
[15] The Problem of Pain, 127. See also his 13 May 1946 letter to Arthur Greeves, “About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in ‘outer darkness.’”
[16] The Problem of Pain, 125.
[17] Of course, this is the title of the movie on the life of Lewis and Davidman. It is the title of the final chapter of The Last Battle: “Farewell to the Shadowlands.” It is also what he placed on Joy’s tomb.
[18] A similar depiction of heaven is Reepicheep in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.”
[19] The Last Battle, Book 7 in The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: Collier, 1956), 180.
[20] The Last Battle, 170.
[21] Mere Christianity, 118.
[22] December 2012. It accompanied some materials left with Geoffrey Bles Publishing.
[23] Reflections on the Psalms.
[24] Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited with a memoir by W. H. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966), 25.
[25] Letters of C. S. Lewis, 25.
[26] The Last Battle, 184.
[27] Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Crossway, 1994), xx.

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