Wednesday, March 20, 2013

C. S. Lewis: God First, Then Heaven

One of the most prevalent cases brought against faith in God is that we create God because we fear death. It is an argument associated with Sigmund Freud, but by no means limited to him.    
Lewis on God and heaven
       C. S. 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.
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.
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.”Despite the clarity that later reflection provides to what was probably a more muddled conclusion at the time, this comment 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.
      Still, Lewis came to terms with death in his final year. He fell into a deep coma in the summer of 1963, surprisingly pulled out of it, and then died 22 November. As he wrote to Mary Willis Sherburne on that June (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?
      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.

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