Posts Tagged ‘c.s. lewis’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Apocalypse. That’s what you’re supposed to do during Advent, right? Think about the four last things, death judgment heaven and hell, and about the end of everything. The Daily Office readings for the past two weeks have encouraged this line of thought: from the Old Testament, the fierce denunciations of Amos, promising retribution to a self-indulgent society that exploits the poor for its own pleasures; from the New Testament, the letters to the seven churches that open John’s Revelations; and from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s predictions of the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem.

The Scriptures are pretty clear and consistent in teaching that God is going to manifest his will for creation in a decisive way that involves cleaning up messes, putting things to rights, permanently dethroning those who have abused power, and getting everything the way he wants it. This decisive action, which may look pretty violent, is going to be the end of the world we know, but also the beginning of something very new. I don’t see how one can be a Christian and not take this teaching seriously.

But the doctrine of the Apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s will for creation, the end of the old broken world and the beginning of a new one, is kind of out of favor right now. On the one hand, there are large segments of the Church, particularly in American Evangelical Christianity, that are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of everything but abortion and homosexuality (which are apparently going to bring about the Apocalypse). On the other hand, I think there are large segments of the Church that are embarrassed by their brethren’s over-emphasis on the doctrine and prefer not to talk about it. Apocalypse? what’s that? That’s just something from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode; averting the Apocalypse is what Buffy and her friends did on a weekly basis.

In his 2012 book Apocalypse Not, pagan and occultist John Michael Greer makes the case that the Apocalypse meme, as he calls it, derives from the Persian priest Zoroaster, who looked at the myths of cosmic regime change represented by the precession of the equinoxes and decided there would be a final, decisive cosmic change, in which the good god of light would prevail over the evil god of darkness and there would be no change. Greer sees the Apocalypse meme as an inherently punitive one; the believer in Apocalypse looks at the world and anticipates the day when everyone who doesn’t think, believe, feel, act like him will be punished, dramatically. He also points out that if Jesus was, as many scholars think, predicting the end of Jerusalem and the Temple in his apocalyptic prophecies, then he is in the very small group of seers whose predictions have verifiably come true.

My understanding of the Apocalypse, and of the four last things, does not require me to gloat over the torments of people who come out on the wrong side of the final battle. What has helped me lately to sort out my thinking on the end of the world is some works of fiction: The Last Battle, the final Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.

The Last Battle is Lewis’s Narnian Apocalypse. In the previous book, The Magician’s Nephew, we saw Narnia created; now we see it destroyed. There is corruption and abuse of power; there is personal and social evil which must be resisted, even opposed with force of arms. But there is also the sense that Narnia’s time has simply run out. It was not meant to last forever. And in a sense, it will last forever as part of Aslan’s Country, the heaven into which the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve enter through their experience of Narnia. Narnia is a region in heaven just as England is, a dimension of God’s love and knowledge of creation.

Duane’s Young Wizards series comes at the issue of beginnings and endings from a partly mythic, partly scientific point of view. In Duane’s universe, the central moral issue is entropy. The universe does not contain enough energy to last forever; every action, every reaction, every transaction causes a loss of energy to the total system. Some things, however, cause a greater loss of energy than others, and thus further entropy. Cruelty, greed, indifference speed up the eventual heat-death of the universe. Kindness, compassion, helping slow it down and put it off.

Duane’s wizards are specialists in slowing down entropy by helping others. Their magic works with the actual physics of the universe and consists, to a great extent, of formal and informal persuasion, often of entities that ordinary people assume are insentient (such as locks on doors, old automobiles, and electronics made in Japan). But their work brings them into direct, often deadly conflict with the being who invented entropy in the first place, the one they call the Lone Power.  The Lone Power (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch in physical manifestation) is the angelic being who introduced death and entropy into the cosmos, and he continues to peddle his inventions like a sort of travelling salesman, showing up whenever a species achieves the threshold of moral choice.

The universe of the Young Wizards is one very, very like our own, with the same sort of problems, the same sort of moral choices. And it’s a universe that’s slowly running down, like a wind-up toy–and so is ours. While the job of a wizard is to put off that final decay as long as possible, there’s also a glimpse of what will happen when the universe finally dies: The One, and the Powers That Be, and the wizards who have worked with them, will make a new universe without entropy, in which death, pain, suffering, decay, and loss are no longer an integral part of the scheme.

The universe is running out of energy. Our individual lives are running out of time. I won’t live forever, you won’t live forever, and the universe won’t last forever. What happens then? The vacuum of no time, no space, no being, where once was an entropic cosmos? Or the glory which is Heaven, Timeheart, Aslan’s Country? I believe in the Apocalypse because I believe in the latter option. I believe that God will start things over with a new story.

I don’t believe, though, that the end of the world as we know it will necessarily involve God finally strong-arming the human race into believing, submitting, and accepting due punishment. I don’t think the Apocalypse will look like we expect it to any more than the first coming of the Lord looked like it was expected to. And I don’t think the God who entered into a cluster of cells in a girl’s womb, was born in poverty and obscurity, and submitted to public execution is going to turn out to be a merciless bully when the veil is pulled back and his intentions are carried out. It wiil be the end of the world as we don’t know it and never imagined it, what eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard.

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I have three criteria for when a spiritual practice or spiritual system is working for me. The first criterion is, does it help me cope with everyday life? Am I handling spills, delays, internet outages, aches and pains reasonably well, or am I losing my temper or bursting into tears at every provocation?
The second is, am I being kind to myself and to other people? Am I impatient with myself and prone to negative self-talk, or am I fairly calm and centered? Do I judge people furiously (if silently) for not conforming to my expectations in the way they drive or dress or use the English language, or can I gently detach? Am I relating well to people I don’t know?
And the third criterion is simply, am I writing? Am I writing something other than morning pages? Am I writing something that isn’t complaining about how this spiritual practice isn’t working for me?
Having the right spiritual practice in my life is like being plugged into an electric socket. I have energy to function, and beyond that, I have energy to create. The right spiritual system feeds my imagination, and the result is not just better coping and a kinder, more humorous, more compassionate stance toward people, but stories, poems, and (hopefully) interesting blog entries.
Since January, I have been saying Morning and Evening Prayer daily and attending the weekly Eucharist at a progressive, arts-oriented Episcopal church. And I have coped with separating from my husband, finding a place of my own, and living by myself; I have written over a dozen short fanfic stories; I have started my first novel. I have continued, sporadically, to blog and to write poetry. I have read widely, socialized with friends old and new, watched a number of television series new to me (thanks to the magic of Amazon Instant Video).
My life is not only functional, it is rich, and I attribute that wholeheartedly to practicing the Christian religion as an Episcopalian. Anglican Christianity is the right sort of current for me, a fuel that my spirit runs on efficiently and even beautifully, like having the right grade of gasoline in your car. I didn’t experience this richness when I was practicing Buddhism. I had it only intermittently when I was practicing Druidry. And I don’t think that I would have it if I were Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or even Orthodox.
On the other hand, I have to grant that other people fuel their lives with an entirely different current and do quite well. I’m sure that my bond with Anglicanism was formed when I was a child, and my imagination was ripe to be imprinted. At the same time I was going to an Episcopal church and hearing the Tudor English of the 1928 Prayerbook, I was reading the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander and the novels of Madeleine L’Engle. It all blended together. But other people get their spiritual energy from other religions, or even from something other than religion; while some public spokespersons for atheism have been publicly obnoxious for a while now, the self-identified atheists, agnostics, and “nones” I’ve known personally have been some of the kindest, most ethical people I know.
It’s just a relief not to be running around any more with the power cord in my hand, so to speak, looking for a place to plug in. I’m plugged in, grounded, and switched on.

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I want to poke some more at something I quoted a couple of days ago: Leslie Keeney’s wise and funny statement that the Bible is more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. Evangelicals, she says, have a lot of trouble with that. Having been raised Anglican and not Evangelical, I don’t have trouble with it. It’s just the way things are.

Christianity inherited a body of texts from Judaism. The two religions soon distinguished themselves from one another by what texts they considered authoritative; Protestants later distinguished themselves from Catholics by rejecting some of the texts that had been accepted as authoritative for over a thousand years. The texts that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh include prose and poetry. The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the writings of the Prophets is poetry, along with that little erotic poem that somehow sneaked in, the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes is a pessimistic prose reflection on the brevity of life and the futility of human endeavor. Pretty much all the rest of those texts, from Genesis through Chronicles, then the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, of Ruth and Esther and Jonah, are narrative.

They are stories.

The four Gospels of the New Testament are stories. So is the Acts of the Apostles. So is the book of Revelation, albeit a rather trippy story. The remainder of the New Testament consists of letters, many of them written by one identifiable person (that guy Paul) to identifiable communities in different locations around the Mediterranean world. While Paul probably did not write everything that has his name on it, he did write quite a few of those letters, in each one addressing a different, specific congregation of believers.

We have these stories.

The closest the Bible comes to ethical precept is Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. Those two books, known as wisdom literature because their main thrust is “Do what is wise” more than “Do what is right” have much in common with the wisdom literature of Egypt, Canaan, ancient Sumer, and other cultures contemporary with ancient Israel. The closest the Bible gets to a how-to manual of behavior is the book of Leviticus, which is about ninety percent directions on ritual, ritual propriety, ritual purity, how to build a portable sanctuary in a tent and how it is to be attended, and what to do if mold or mildew appears in your home. It is full of instructions that Christians have routinely ignored at least since the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: don’t wear clothes of blended wool and linen, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (or eat meat and dairy products together, as the laws of kosher still proscribe), don’t eat shellfish, men get circumcised, women take ritual baths after their menses.

The rest of it is stories.

I grew up with a religion of stories. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Paul and his journeys, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, of Ruth and Naomi, Esther and the king, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath. Alongside the Bible stories, there were stories of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers. And there were stories about other gods, gods of Egypt and Greece, of the Norse and the Celts. As I read about other religions and other gods, I had no inclination to think they were evil or demonic or even untrue; they just weren’t mine. People used to worship Odin and Thor, Zeus and Apollo and Athena (I loved Athena), and now they didn’t. People in India still worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, but somehow that was okay.  It was my own tradition’s sacred stories that taught me to pay attention to all story; a story was worth paying attention to no matter where it came from.

Along with the stories came the poetry. Not just the Psalms but the hymns we sang in church were poetry (not always good poetry, but poetry). I still remember finding the Song of Songs in the Bible and poring over it furtively with exactly the same frisson I later got from my father’s badly hidden copy of Anais Nin‘s Delta of Venus; even as a precocious nine-year-old, I knew it was a poem about sex. What was it doing in the Bible? What were breasts doing in the Bible?

As a teenager I discovered not only Anais Nin’s erotica, but the poetry of John Donne, about equally obsessed with sex and with God; the Divine Comedy of Dante, about equally obsessed with God, romantic love, and politics; and Julian of Norwich, and T.S. Eliot, and a lot of other things that the poetry of the liturgy and the Bible had somehow prepared me for. If I wanted to write about God (and sex, romantic love, and creativity), I had models to follow.

Religion, for me, was never about ideas, or propositions. Even the great doctrines like Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity were not abstract concepts, but rather abstracts in the literary sense, shorthand summaries of longer descriptions, references to stories. That God created humans, gave us the divine power to name, and then actually became human and lived with us, was, and is, the most fascinating story I could imagine.

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The great weakness of That Hideous Strength is that Lewis didn’t know, or didn’t admit, who the real enemies were.  He portrayed cosmic evil working through cold-hearted scientists and sexual perverts (as he saw lesbians); if he were writing today, he might choose businessmen and clergy as the cold hearts and ruthless sexual predators.

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