Last weekend I decided that I was done with being lonely, so I drove up to the nearest city with a gay bar to get dinner, do some drinking, do some dancing, and later do some fucking. The problem was, I’m rubbish with driving in cities. I’m never in the right lane, I get paranoid when someone drives behind me, and I never have change for parking meters. I called someone for directions, but I still ended up out by the highway. In Asheville terms, I went looking for Lexington Ave and ended up on Tunnel Rd. Or, if you prefer New York, I got lost in downtown Manhattan and found myself in Scranton. So I pulled into the Walmart parking lot to figure out where I was, and I saw a guy with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. I ran into the Subway inside the Walmart and bought him a sandwich, looked at how late it was getting, and trudged moodily to the Outback Steakhouse. I had a great dinner and did a little drinking, read some Sartre, but then I just went home. This happened to me in Paris, too: I spent three days wandering the city, giving over a hundred euros to beggars, before I finally made it to Le Marais. I’ve got to make sure other people’s needs are met before I can accept the idea that my needs are important too.

This was always my favourite C. S. Lewis book. Maybe because, as a romantic, I’m drawn by its fragmentary nature. I tend to think that it’s more because the title speech captures what I believe the essence of religion ought to be: learning to see the infinite potential of each human being, and encouraging them to reach that potential.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

Many religious people will tell you that the purpose of religion is to gain a sense of God and to please Him. I think that it’s just as important to understand what religion tells us about ourselves and our fellow humans. I don’t usually think of myself as a god-in-embryo; it’s easier for me to see the divine in other people. Maybe that’s why I give to the homeless; when I help them, their gratitude makes me feel as if the universe approves of me. There’s something that feels more authentic, more beneficent in having a dirty kid who wears winter clothes in the summer and only owns eight pieces of kibble for his dog tell me “God bless you” than in hearing the same phrase from my coworker, who is consistently well-fed and is taking a month of vacation to travel to Albania. I shake hands with American Christians on a weekly basis (can’t resist a nice-looking guy in a suit, so I keep going back to church), but none of them confer the same degree of blessing as the old woman wearing hijab on the Champs-Elysées, who interrupted her prostrating to clutch my hand and kiss it. It is significantly more difficult for me to see the divine in my next-door neighbor, who shouts really damaging things at the woman he lives with, or in another coworker who literally sticks his nose in the air when he sees me coming down the hall (if I walked by him outside during a rainstorm, he’d drown). So, yes, even in the religion of free love that I’ve invented for myself, I still have a way to go.

I also appreciate Lewis’s approach to symbols, and his honesty with them.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

Symbols are not doctrine. They can teach, but only by suggesting, by pointing at something else. The symbol is not the point; what it represents is. The problem is that, when it comes to religion (of any sort), the thing symbolized cannot be understood without symbols. I think this explains my abiding interest in mysticism and sex. Language is a symbol like any other, and it’s often less adequate than more pictorial representations. I’ve spent my life looking for experience that transcends language, for glory that cannot be expressed. That bit in the Bible about “seek and ye shall find” is true; when I was religious, I sought mystical experiences, fasting, praying, meditating, sacrificing, any spiritual discipline that people do, I’ve probably tried in some form. In return, I heard voices, saw visions, and occasionally felt a touch or an embrace from someone who (empirically considered) wasn’t there. These days I look for transcendence in sex. Not as frequently as I’d like, but I can find “what feeds my soul” in that intense physical experience.

Lewis describes it not so much as transcending as transposing. The comparison here that makes the most sense to me is in making a piano reduction of an orchestral work. I’ve listened to and played enough of these that I get it. You can put all the same notes in there, but you can’t capture the timbre of the other instruments with a piano. There’s something about the opening to Rhapsody in Blue that only makes sense when it’s played on the clarinet. Even so, there are some things that just will never make sense in this life, because Earth isn’t the instrument life is written for. I’m not sure I completely agree with this idea, but I can see the beauty of it, and I can see how it helps others get through life contentedly.

As I was rereading this book, I realized how much I’ve changed from when I last read it, five or six years ago. For most of my life, I’ve looked for what Lewis calls “The Inner Ring,” that small group of people who really belong, who make things happen. I’ve been drawn to power and tried to associate myself with those people I perceived as having it. But not now. I guess now that I’m away from God and my ex-wife, I feel like I have enough power in my life that I don’t go around looking for more. I don’t even look at social groups any more. I see individuals, and I decide whom I want to be with based on their personal qualities. Perhaps not completely, but mostly I’ve been cured of this inner-ringer-ness.

The other big change is in my response to the essay on membership. Lewis teaches that the key to personality is in surrendering it to God. Working in the church, you discover who you really are, you are more completely yourself than when you are alone.

We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

I am too familiar with truthful paradoxes to argue against this with logic. All I can really say is, my experience was different. I didn’t become more myself; I became less. The more I threw myself into church service, the more I conformed to the patterns set by others. It’s no use turning yourself into an ear when you were made to be a leaf. And as for obedience and unity with God, that requires labeling half of my desires as evil and ignoring or fighting against them in order to kill them. Killing half of oneself does not increase the self; it left me half of a person. And that supposedly evil part of the self never really dies; like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, it lies in wait until a new opportunity arises. Then one day when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, those desires overwhelm you and you “fall into sin.” This Christian concept of what it means to be human is incredibly dangerous because it encourages such violence to the self. Not physical, but mental and emotional violence.

I find more diversity among “the worldlings” than the Christians. This diversity comes from having a healthier attitude toward the self. Instead of seeing myself as a battlefield where angels and demons struggle for dominance, now I am just myself. The desires I have for “evil” are as much a part of me as my desires for “good.” The more I can accept this fundamental truth, the more peace I have with myself. I try to love the people and other living things around me, and where I can’t yet love, I try to be kind. If I have a desire to be unkind, then I accept that as part of myself, but I also try to understand where the desire comes from. It’s often rooted in fear, especially fear of rejection, so I try to address my fears in other ways that don’t hurt others. I do not find this approach to life in most Christians, but it doesn’t seem quite as uncommon among the educated secular.

Religion has actually been the area in my life where I feel the most rejection lately. Here in the United States the Supreme Court has decided that marriage is marriage, regardless of the genders of the people entering into it. A number of my friends are celebrating by adding rainbow filters to their facebook profile pictures and posting supportive comments. A number of friends I feel more distant from are responding by complaining about the color and insisting that by definition gay marriage cannot exist. While it’s not a definite dividing line, more Christians are straight-only-marriage-defenders, and more secular people are gay-marriage-celebrators. Then, the church I grew up in issued a formal statement to be read in all congregations throughout the United States and Canada claiming the church’s right never to recognize gay relationships. In my opinion, the gesture is unnecessary and hostile. Their stance on homosexuality has been clear for decades now, and has never changed. They are an institution dedicated to the salvation of humanity, they even claim that their priesthood ordinances are necessary for salvation, but they deny these to me and my people. It’s taken me years to understand that being rejected by this church and being rejected by God are not the same thing. But I’ve finally mustered the courage to respond to their rejection in the most sensible fashion: I resigned my membership. Most of the members I know think this is a horrible idea – I think they see me as embracing my damnation – but I can see the love in their concern, and I can accept their love and friendship without remaining one of them. If God is my creator, then I can best please him by being the person he created. [Sorry about the masculine pronouns. Part of being gay for me unfortunately involves a certain discomfort with femininity as an abstract concept, so I think of God as a him. There are many people I love who see God as female, or both, or neither, and I support their interacting with the divine in terms they are more comfortable with.]

So, looking at the table of contents, we have: The Weight of Glory, yes. Learning in War-Time, yes. Why I am Not a Pacifist, yes. Transposition, yes. Is Theology Poetry, yes, but it’s not as memorable so it’s a more tentative yes. The Inner Ring, okay, but not really relevant right now. Membership, no. On Forgiveness, yes. A Slip of the Tongue, no.

C. S. Lewis is good for striking at the heart of Christianity, explaining the basic concepts in a learned fashion. You can see his strong leaning toward the academy, but he explains things in such a way that most people can understand. If a person has a problem with Lewis, that person probably has a problem with Christianity as a whole because Lewis tends to shy away from topics that Christians disagree on. As I’ve said, of the works that I’ve read, this is the book that I have the most positive emotional response to. The emphasis is on application and reasoning rather than unquestionable doctrine, so it’s better for me and other people who don’t trust what can’t be questioned.

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Comments
  1. I really love reading your posts, especially this one; there aren’t all that many people (in my circles, at least) talking about faith and the divine who are also good, clear writers. Many good writers (and a lot of academics generally) tend to feel that it’s all too ridiculous to bother talking about, and the people who are willing to talk about it often aren’t very compelling writers. And I have some similar struggles with Lewis: lovely writer, and anyone as lucid and (sometimes) charming about faith as he is doesn’t have much trouble convincing me that if there’s a divine out there, he’s in touch with it (# Puddleglum # Screwtape). Like Agent Mulder, I often want to believe, and I certainly don’t think of myself as a worldling in Lewis’ sense. And yet I can’t agree with so much of his doctrine–one of the big reasons I’m not a Christian. Like you, I don’t think we should be called to kill half of our selves; I don’t think the body of the Christian church (even the varieties that aren’t brutally discriminatory) is where sacred work happens for me; and if the divine is there, I really hope it doesn’t want me to murder and violate my core need for “selfish privacy” as a regular thing (which, by the way, Lewis wasn’t so keen on giving up, either.) And, with Frost, I suspect that “Earth’s the right place for love; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” So, while I’m very glad you fed the hungry, I also hope you find the bar, or somewhere even better, very soon.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      Thank you. I’ve always enjoyed your writing too, even when it was a handout for class.

      Often I find that wanting to believe is all I can manage. I see how comforting and inspiring belief is for other people, and I want to have that peace and motivation, but finding faith is a bit like trying to find the lost sock after the dryer’s eaten it. I feel certain that it must exist because cotton doesn’t spontaneously transform itself into antimatter, but I have no way to access it. I’ve quoted those lines from “Birches” many times as well; they’ve become an important part of my belief system.

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