Friday, May 7, 2010

"No one could have imagined it before he tasted it"

C.S. Lewis has been an important influence on my own thoughts about the faith. Among the many relevant subjects he addressed his ideas and imaginings of Heaven and Hell have significantly affected mine. Peter J. Schakel gives us a fine review of what Lewis had to say on the subject in an exhaustive survey: "Heaven and Hell as Idea and Image in C. S. Lewis." Early on he notes that Lewis was grateful that the beginning of his Christian life did not include belief in either:
...[E]ven when he returned to belief in a divine being, he did so without initially believing in life after death. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he says of his conversion to theism that it “involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question” (chap. 15, par. 2). In Reflections on the Psalms, he expands that idea to the early Hebrews, who had no belief in a future state of any sort; only later, after the people had learned “to desire and adore God” selflessly, could the hope of Heaven and fear of Hell be revealed to them, “as corollaries of a faith already centred upon God” (chap. 4, par. 17). Lewis regards it as a mercy that he became a Christian without believing in heaven because it reassures him about his motive: he did not return to God to obtain a reward, to gain a blissful afterlife in heaven; he did it solely out a desire for God as the source of goodness and truth. Lewis had little sympathy with those who urge people to become Christians in order to avoid hell and instead attain a blissful existence after death (“too often, I am afraid, [heaven is] desired chiefly as an escape from Hell” – Reflections on the Psalms, chap. 4, par. 18).
Schakel [and Lewis] on the importance of keeping in mind a distinction:
I have borrowed the words idea and image in my title from Perelandra, chapter 10, paragraph 1, where the narrator says “What emerged from the [Un-man’s] stories [about tragic heroines] was rather an image than an idea.” I am using idea as a synonym for doctrine (the Truth about heaven and hell) and image as a synonym for picture or metaphor, the use of words to create visual images that help us at least partially to grasp that Truth. Focusing on those two terms is important because it is difficult to talk about the doctrines of heaven and hell without slipping into pictures of heaven and hell. Ask people what hell is, for example, and you may get answers like, a pit of fires that will burn forever, perhaps surrounded with devils jabbing the damned with pitchforks. These are images, not ideas, and Lewis warns us “not to confuse the doctrine itself with the imagery by which it may be conveyed” (The Problem of Pain, chap. 8, par. 9).
Lewis imagined Heaven in both The Great Divorce and The Last Battle, but Schakel quotes him as cautioning his readers:
“I beg readers to remember that this [story] is a fantasy,” not even a guess at what heaven actually will be like. When someone wrote to Lewis asking if he wanted heaven to be similar to what he described in that story, he replied, “No, I don’t wish I knew Heaven was like the picture in my Great Divorce, because, if we knew that, we should know it was no better. The good things even of this world are far too good ever to be reached by imagination. Even the common orange, you know: no one could have imagined it before he tasted it. How much less Heaven” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 7 August 1956). .... [much, much more]
C. S. Lewis Blog: Heaven and Hell as Idea and Image in C. S. Lewis