Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out of the Shadowlands

I am quite fond of C.S. Lewis' writings. I'd say I'm fond of C.S. Lewis, but since I never met the man personally, that seems to be overstating my position. I've read much of what he wrote, although I cannot say that I have read everything. Like many others I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia very much. Our children went through a phase when they loved the Chronicles also. We would listen to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre presentation of the Chronicles so often that I felt like I could recite the lines along with the actors. Now my children seem to be in a stage of life where the Chronicles do not speak to them with the power they once did. Perhaps they will return to them. Certainly they were a foundation stone for my daughter's love of fantasy literature, even if at present they have receded from her active memory.

Of the Chronicles, I have always particularly liked The Last Battle. I love Lewis' portrayal of the end of Narnia and the unfolding of the real Narnia. I resonated with the cry to go “further up and further in,” to experience the unfolding dimensions and depths of this eternal, real realm. Certainly this was an accurate depiction of what heaven would be like.

Although I still love the Chronicles and The Last Battle, I no longer hold to the idea that Lewis has given an accurate depiction of heaven. I've long understood that Lewis' thinking was significantly shaped by Greek philosophy and mythology, as well as the mythologies of many other cultures. I even understood that this philosophy shaped his depiction and understanding of heaven and earth. What I failed to grasp though was the flaws in this. I come from a background that treats Lewis as a significant Christian theologian. But as Dianna Anderson argued very well in her recent article, Lewis did not seek to write as a theologian. He was first and foremost a philosopher and to the extent that we can consider him a theologian, we must read what he wrote with a clear understanding of his philosophical presuppositions.

In The Last Battle and throughout his writings, Lewis views the world through the eyes of Platonic (or perhaps neo-Platonic) philosophy, which sees this world as only a form of the real world. Everything about this world is at best an image of something real. Narnia, as experienced by the various children who inhabit the stories of the Chronicles, is not the “real” Narnia, but only a form of it. They only enter the real Narnia at the end of the series and find that it resembles the Narnia they have known, but yet is much larger and more substantial. It would be more accurate to say not that the real Narnia resembles the physical, earlier Narnia (an imprecise term because the real Narnia is physical as well, in fact more so, but somehow I must distinguish between the two), but vice-versa, because the physical Narnia is in fact only a form of the true Narnia.

I did not realize until recently, and Anderson's article helped me to solidify my thinking on this topic, that this Platonic philosophy had come to profoundly shape my understanding of heaven. I had come to see earth as a poor copy or image of heaven. We will only experience the true heaven when we reach it and when we do, it will seem a lot like this earth but somehow bigger, better, more solid and more real. I can say that there may still be some point in which this is an accurate description of heaven, but now, following the exposition of N.T. Wright, I've begun to understand that this earth was not a poor copy of something better. It was created in perfection. It's current condition is not due to any lack in its creation. It is not a poor copy of something more real and perfect. Rather, it is the real thing, only affected profoundly by fall and the ensuing influence of evil over the centuries. It's not that things on this earth are there just to give us reminders or hints of heaven. Heaven will be this earth but in the fullness of its created perfection as God originally intended and formed it.

To some this argument may seem purely rhetorical, but I think it makes a significant difference in how we view the world and how we understand what it means to live as people of faith in this world. In another post related to this topic, Anderson discusses this in relation to one specific and pertinent topic. I strongly encourage you to read her articles (she has three about properly and improperly interpreting C.S. Lewis.) If we adopt a Lewisian theology influenced heavily by Platonic philosophy, we end up with a sort of dualistic mindset that views this world as temporary and expendable. It's not the real thing anyway. At best (or perhaps worst) it leads us to efforts to reshape this world into our best guess as to what the “real” looks like. But since we don't know that (since all we can see is the form anyway), we end up just trying to shape things in the way that seems to best suit our own concepts. Again, read Anderson for an illustration of this.

If, however, we see this world as the pinnacle, albeit fallen and deformed, of God's creation, then we don't have to try to reshape it into some unknown ideal, but instead can work to mend the brokenness that is painfully apparent. We can become agents with God in restoring creation to the perfection that she or he originally intended for it. As Anderson writes:

God did not create this world to be a mere copy of some other better, more ideal one. This is the ideal world! All of it. It will be renewed, recreated, and reformed into the ideal, but it is not merely a placeholder for the ideal in the meantime. (emphasis Anderson's)

We're not here in the Shadowlands, just waiting to break through into the real world. I used to think that. Now I think I was wrong. We're in the real world. It's broken, wounded, deformed, but this is the real thing. This is the world that God will renew and reform as/when the Kingdom is fully established. I don't know what that renewed Kingdom will look like, but I'd sure like to contribute to seeing it realized here and now.

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