Oldest Fears

Nearly they stood who fall;

Themselves as they look back

See always in the track

The one false step, where all

Even yet, by lightest swerve

Of foot not yet enslaved,

By smallest tremor of the smallest nerve,

Might have been saved.

 

Nearly they fell who stand,

And with cold after fear

Look back to mark how near

They grazed the Sirens’ land,

Wondering that subtle fate,

By threads so spidery fine,

The choice of ways so small, the event so great,

Should thus entwine.

 

Therefore oh, man, have fear

Lest oldest fears be true,

Lest thou too far pursue

The road that seems so clear,

And step, secure, a hair’s

Breadth past the hair-breadth bourne,

Which, being once crossed forever unawares,

Denies return.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, (181).

Literary Hedonism

One evening a month or so ago, my three oldest children were reading on the couch, each one in their own way. Maria, my second oldest, seven, was silently reading one of the Little House books to herself. In the middle of the couch sat Abraham, my oldest at nine years old. He was reading aloud one of the Hardy Boys books to Judah, five. Reading- aloud, silently, and by listening have been the trinity of my kid’s reading lives.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-10,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

I have been trying for most of my life to figure out reading. Before Rachel and I had children, we had aspirations for the kinds of educational goals that we thought would suit our children. These goals were as easy to discuss as ‘what would you do if you won the lottery,’ considering that we had no raw material to work from, no obstacles to weigh our dreams against. When we finally did have our firstborn son, we decided that above all else, we wanted our children to love and glorify God, and to love reading. We considered that a love of reading and learning would be conducive for properly shaping and equipping a young mind for the wide world and God’s purposes.

I obviously don’t know yet how many large directional mistakes we’ve made, but there are some things that have gone well. God has blessed our simple efforts to raise readers. Rachel and I wanted to expose their eyes and ears to the riches of literature, and we continued to raise our expectations just a bit higher than we thought them likely to attain.

Today, library trips are a regularly scheduled occasion. The children remind me of starving inmates awaiting daily rations. Entire series are greedily gobbled down before another trip can be arranged. Their enjoyment was something we could share together. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Abraham and Maria while they were three and four respectively. Since then, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed countless hours of shared literary experience. I can’t tell you how many Harry Potter jokes we’ve recounted to one another. Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, and Narnia have provided worlds of imagination and shared culture to appreciate. Lewis, Kipling, Tolkien, Homer- our list of patrons goes ever on and on. We wanted to read with serendipity, a word that Alan Jacobs bequeathed to us that forever changed our reading habits.

So, we read for pleasure, for pure joy. Let us call it literary hedonism. If we find that we can enjoy a text that we had to work hard to appreciate, we are overjoyed for the pleasure of the thing. Lest concerns of pride arise, we pay homage to the author to receive and engage what he or she has to offer. We have nothing that we did not receive. It is all so exhilarating. I look over the lists of texts we’ve read with wonder- how many more will we share? We’ll enjoy the tales of arms and of men, of rings of power, and of the best and worst of times.

So lightly invoked

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some “disinterested,” because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of terrible aspect,” is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable , exacting as love between the sexes.

– C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain 46-47

Body and Soul

I’ve recently been teaching a class on the relationship between the body and the soul at our church. The writings of C.S. Lewis have been invaluable for me because he anticipated much of our contemporary philosophical and scientific discourse on the mind-body problem. His wonderfully clear analogies have been faithful friends.

I knew that I generally found myself in agreement with Lewis’ ideas regarding the embodiment of our souls and the important distinction between mind and matter. I was therefore prepared to wrestle with a statement that he had written which I thought had an awkward lack of balance. The quote frequently shows up with this subject:

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

The statement seemed to place an almost Platonic emphasis upon the soul over against the body with regard to our personhood. Rather than seeing humans as body-soul composites, it implied that we are more soul than body. This is striking because it seemed to run against the grain of Lewis’ other writings about the body. For instance:

“Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those acetic Pagans who called it the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a ‘sack of dung’, food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass’. All three may be – I am not sure – defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.” ~ from The Four Loves

I’m aware that the two quotes are not mutually exclusive. The longer quote above could be consistent with the kind of hierarchy implied in the shorter. However, when the longer passage is compared with Lewis’ other writings, a kind of balance appears which places the ‘you are a soul’ quote to the status of unrepresentative outlier.

Lewis’ other writings portray a keen awareness and attention to materiality, as well as a strenuous effort to help his readers see how the higher world is seen and experienced by means of the lower. Another great example is his allegory, The Great Divorce. In this story, heaven was not more ethereal and cloudy than our world below, but harder, crisp, more deeply felt. In this case heaven was a more real version of the world as we know it, giving a sense of dignity to the here and now.

Naturally, I wanted to find additional context for the ‘you are a soul’ quote. I searched the highways and hedges of the internet to discover that Lewis never wrote it. Here is a link to the source that helpfully explained this for me. The statement is most credibly attributed to a letter written by George MacDonald. I’m glad that I don’t have to discuss Lewis’ views on the mind-body with an awkward caveat about that single off-balance quote. Instead, I’ll provide a statement from Matthew Lee Anderson, one that would more likely cohere with Lewis’ thinking:

You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.