Saturday, May 10, 2014

Aslan is not a tame lion

I originally intended to read Rowan Williams' book The Lion's World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia immediately following my year-long reading of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia throughout 2013. But it took several months after I finished to for me to get around to reading it. I wrote a few things during my year-long engagement with the Chronicles, which was the first time I read these books:

True education requires imagination

"Soon and very soon..."

Logic, Narnia, Lewis, Giussani, Plantinga

To Narnia and the north - journeying with a Presence

St. Hwin of Narnia, or Bree has an encounter

In his wonderful way, Archbishop Rowan does a masterful job penetrating Lewis' work, dealing with various criticisms that have been made, some of which have something to them, others being just plain silly, and none of them undermining Lewis' achievement. On my reading, the most penetrating chapters of Williams' book are chapters three and four, respectively entitled, "Not a tame Lion" and "No story but your own." In this post I will focus exclusively on the third chapter. I apologize at the outset for not setting forward a better synthesis of what +Rowan has to say, but it's no easy matter getting back to semi-serious writing.

One of Williams' first insights about the remarkable figure of Aslan is that, while he "may be the rightful king of Narnia... he makes his first appearance as a rebel against the established order" (50). Extrapolating from this, he observes, "The truth of God is found in rebellion against the oppressive cliché of the world" (51). Hence, "The orderliness of a world focused on the self is doomed to be disrupted by grace; and we can't appreciate what Aslan is about unless and until we see him in action against this kind of order" (52).

Commenting on Lewis' persistent insistence that physical enjoyment, perhaps culminating in sexual union (though not in Narnia, which are books for children, but in A Grief Observed and some his other works), is not to be eschewed, contra certain strands of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. Williams writes "that what Lewis is trying to evoke is a world in which the profoundest physical enjoyment is one of the best and clearest images of what it is to meet God" (56). He does not do so without making the proper qualifications, especially that Lewis is not advocating for a "an erotic mysticism" (56). On Williams' view, for Lewis, our meeting God is analogical, which is
never a substitute for physical fulfilment, nor is physical fulfilment a means to encounter with God. It is simply that erotic satisfaction fully enjoyed is one of the most powerful glimpses we can have of what union with God is like - a point entirely consonant with a great deal in the tradition of Christian contemplation (56)
Remember, like Karol Wojtyła, Williams is heavily influenced by the Carmelite mystics, especially St John of the Cross.

Williams next addresses a point very dear to my own experience. If I died and ceased to exist, if all that I believe as a Christian turned out not to be true in the end, I will not regret for one moment (setting aside the fact that I will be forever "out of" moments) being a Christian. For me, being a Christian constitutes my own metaphysical rebellion (taking a note from my dear Camus) against the seeming absurdity, or at least utter strangeness, of human existence. In this context, Williams points to an episode from The Silver Chair featuring Puddlegum, in which the marsh-wiggle resists the onslaught of the evil witch-queen of Underland, who is trying to brainwash him by him convincing that there is no reality apart from that of Underland, and that there is certainly no Aslan. Puddlegum replies, "I'm on Aslan side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it" (61). Williams notes, "the most dedicated believer will be faced with the apparent emptiness of the claims that faith makes and will have to decide whether or not to cling to the hope of another kind of sense, not simply available for inspection by the casual observer" (62). It seems to me that this is right out of St. Paul: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Rom 8:24-25).

Finally, in this chapter, +Rowan turns to the small matter of the nature of reality. He observes that, on Lewis' view, "Human rules are neither here nor there, and they are commonly used for unjust purposes; Lewis is enough of a Tory anarchist to be very sceptical of most schemes for human happiness" (67). Nonetheless, "the real world, which human convention normally obscures for us, is indeed law-governed" (67). In other words, "Things in this world have a real nature and their effects are according to that nature" (67). Therefore, "we must not confuse the anarchic grace that overcomes self-made bonds and human power games with an anarchy that simply denies what is there" (67).

Seemingly taking a page from my dear Don Gius, Williams observes,
Ultimately, the dense and tough structure of reality must be respected - whether it is the structure of the nature that things have or the structure of human acts and choices. What is devilish... is the illusion that we can somehow control this reality by denying it...

... The way to life or reconciliation or forgiveness or renewal is always a path through what is  there, including... what is there in our own past (68)
The purpose of our lives, Lewis insisted, even in A Grief Observed, is joy, to be joyful, joy-filled, and  not only eventually in the eternal bye-and-bye, but even now amidst life's trials and strains. Writing of this joy, Williams concludes,
If joy is thought of first as the gratification of the will, we are hardly likely to grasp the idea that it is only 'solid' and 'lasting' (in the words of a familiar hymn) if it is the fruit of participation in what is not the will or ego - if it is what comes from the contact with something radically other, whether finite or infinite in its otherness. Lewis wants to persuade us that we are to find our fulfilment in receiving rather than in demanding (69)

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