Archive for December, 2010


Reading C.S. Lewis in the year 2010 can be an exasperating experience.  He seems mired in a traditional morality which the Western world has struggled hard to shake off over the last sixty-five years.  After a series of cataclysmic social changes touched off by the Civil Rights movement and the sexual revolution, we have emerged on an entirely new social plane of greater human equality.  How many still agree with Lewis that a wife should be ruled by her husband, with no reciprocal obligation of the husband to the wife?  On the day after the U.S. Congress finally voted to allow gay men and women to serve openly in the military, ending years of the opaque “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, how many among us still believe with Lewis that homosexuality is an unpardonable “perversity?”  As a gay man, I will never admit to my own perversity.  In fact, there is ample evidence that gay men and women can make courageous and excellent religious leaders.  Think of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire to name just one shining example.

Still, we have to remember that Lewis was writing at a time long before the “culture wars,” when a majority of British citizens probably believed exactly what Lewis wrote about homosexuals and the bonds between husbands and wives.  If you can get beyond the thicket of loaded cultural values in Lewis’ Mere Christianity, you will stumble upon long, inspired passages of true genius.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Lewis’ chapter on “The Great Sin,” namely pride.  In crystalline prose, he explains,

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison:  it was through Pride that the devil became the devil:  Pride leads to every other vice:  it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”  Lewis then goes on to add that “Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature – while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident.  Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”   Moreover, pride is fundamentally linked to power:  “For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys:  there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers” (read:  Hitler.)   In a sort of aside, he adds that vanity is a much more forgivable vice than pride because the vain man rejoices in praise whereas the truly proud man considers himself so superior to his acolytes that he has ceased to feel any need for their approval and thus any recognition of the legitimacy of the human ‘other.’

Lewis concludes, “The Christians are right:  it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.  Other vices may sometimes bring people together:  you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people.  But pride always means enmity – it is enmity.  And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”

What causes the sin of pride is of course what Lewis alludes to in other chapters:  the illusory self-concept nearly all of us have of being in sole control of our lives, rather than admitting to ourselves that it is God who actually holds the reigns. 

It is probably no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis were both Oxbridge dons and contemporaries, writing in different but complimentary modes about the imprint of the Nazi menace on free society.  In Lewis’ exposition on pride as the greatest sin of all we can clearly envision the cauldron from which Gollum, Sauron, Darth Vader, The Emperor, and Voldemort were all fired.  These pop devils all share an epic enmity to God, entailing a visceral need to move their minions around like toy soldiers and to  outcompete the human heroes who challenge them.  The moral of the stories is that just as the apparent dualism of maya is the veil of illusion in the outer world, the hard-shell human ego is the illusory veil of superiority and hence separateness in the inner one.  To come closer to God, we need to pierce and crawl through both.  Humility is the antidote to pride and as Lewis concedes about himself,

“I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself:  if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy? And all its posing and posturing.  To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.”

This last sentence could just as well have been written by a Buddhist guru as by an intellectual Christian essayist.


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In a chapter in Mere Christianity called “The Three Parts of Morality,” C. S. Lewis memorably compares man to “a fleet of ships sailing in formation,” explaining,

 “The Voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order.  As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other.”

Visualizing this marine metaphor in my mind’s eye, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my childhood delight at reading Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which has just been released as ‘a major motion picture.’  Lewis goes on to add that the third part of morality is the agreed destination of the fleet, saying, “…however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.”

Lewis then goes on to point out that “modern people” nearly always discuss morality in terms of the first part, the social need to avoid collisions between ships, to the exclusion of the other two.  For example, sermons in a Christian church are more likely to concentrate on how one person should interact or conduct himself with others than on how that person might clean his inner house, what Lewis calls “morality inside the individual.”  In other words, evil thoughts like President Jimmy Carter’s famous confession that he had lusted in his head many times, are of far less import than evil acts.

With his metaphor of ships in a fleet, Lewis may have hit on one of the key distinctions between Christianity and the Eastern religions.  Through chanting, meditation, and their emphasis on going inside one’s self to find the Truth, Hinduism and Buddhism clearly concern themselves more with what Lewis calls the “things inside man” (part 2 of morality) than they do directly with the “relations between man and man” (part 1.)  Christianity seems to emphasize that if a human ship works hard to avoid collisions with another ship, it will improve itself in the eyes of God, whereas Hinduism and Buddhism teach that if a human ship works hard to repair its own engine, rudder and hull, it will avoid collisions other ships.  For example, in Buddha:  A Story of Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra tells the vivid and moving account of how the monk Gautauma tried to interfere in the drama of others, by helping a quarreling married couple to right their donkey cart, which he witnessed turning over in a ditch.  Gautama’s guru at the time laughs at him, and the clear lesson is that if Gautauma had only attended to his inner self rather than attempting to interfere in the affairs of others, both his own destiny and those of the peasants would have proceeded more smoothly according to the Divine Plan.

To be sure, Lewis points out that Christian morality does not concern itself solely with the relations between man and man, he simply stresses that man as a social being has a tendency to concentrate on this aspect of morality to the exclusion of the other one, internal morality.  His main point, though, is that the third part of morality is the most important of all because it has to do with the direction the fleet is sailing towards.  If it has set a course toward God, obviously it has set the right course.  Lewis goes so far as to submit that at least for Christians, we are not the captains of our ships, and therefore we do not set the course:

“But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not?  Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord?  If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.”

Reasonably for those who believe in God, Lewis concludes that God is the real commander of the fleet, because we each have an immortal soul whose destiny is in our power to shape and in God’s power to judge.  Therefore, to Lewis, the most important part of morality is where each of us stands with God, “(the) relations between man and the power that made him.”  He seems to view this formula as evidence of what makes Christianity unique among religions, but what religion would dispute the thesis that our relationship to God is of paramount importance?  Instead, what actually appears to be unique about Christianity with regard to morality is its primary insistence on the role of God as Judge.  Christianity is obviously not the only religion to view God as the judge of man – Judaism and Islam clearly do so as well, to name just two – but Christianity has a unique way of counting up and tabulating all our breaches of morality as sins that must be judged.  By contrast, a rabbi once told me, “I am not so much concerned with sin.”

There is an important difference between Christian sin and the Eastern concept of karma.  In both systems, we are perfectly capable of transgressing moral standards, but sinning leads to an ‘either/or’ result:  either God will forgive us for Eternity or He will condemn us.  By contrast, one who commits an act of bad karma will receive not eternal justice but a relative justice commensurate with the crime.  Moreover, the point of the punishment is not so much to do penance per se, but to receive a moral lesson.  Once the lesson is learned, the karmic transgressor can move on unfettered.  The mechanism for this process is that he will either be punished by a reciprocal act of karma by another human agent in this lifetime, or he will be reborn to a lower or more difficult station in his next life.  In both systems, God determines the outcome, but in the Eastern system what we receive is swift justice rather than eternal Judgment.  By contrast, Lewis says that if his bad temper or his jealousy was gradually getting worse in his lifetime, “it might be absolute hell in a million years:  in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.” 

In this way, reincarnation is a sort of escape valve from ultimate Judgment that Christianity does not permit itself.  Christians may regard reincarnation as being for sissies because anyone who believes in it could simply say, to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, “I’ll worry about it tomorrow,” as in my next life.  Yet this is a misreading of reincarnation.  Yes, reincarnation puts off punishment at times, but it does not absolve the human actor from his karmic debt.  What it does do that I admire and that draws me toward Hinduism and Buddhism, is that it allows God to emerge as above judgment.  Yes, He judges, but His judgments follow scientific laws of cause and effect, like the mathematical law of probability or the predictable collisions of specific molecules with one another.  God does not have to play good cop/bad cop as He does in Christianity.  Instead, God is All-Good, All-Forgiving and completely above the fray of our human dramas of cruelty and betrayal.  This, I believe, allows us to devote ourselves to God without simultaneously fearing Him.

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In Mere Christianity, originally published as “The Case for Christianity” when the world was at war in 1942, C.S. Lewis presents us with a powerful argument for Christian activism.  His goal was clearly to help mobilize the forces of good against evil during the London blitz.  Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu hero Arjuna is coached by Lord Krishna to battle against evil.  Yet there are important differences to the approach both religions take to the problem of evil.  Christianity tends to define the evil adversary primarily as an external force leading us into temptation and sin, while the Hindu-Buddhist tradition focusses on the many-fanged demons inside our heads essentially as an internal corruption or dysfunction of our minds.

Christianity builds on the Jewish notion that God is outside the world and separate from it.  As Lewis puts it,

“Pantheists usually believe that God, so to speak, animates the universe as you animate your body:  that the universe almost is God, so that if it did not exist He would not exist either, and anything you find in the universe is a part of God.  The Christian idea is quite different.  They think God invented and made the universe – like a man making a picture or composing a tune.  A painter is not a picture, and he does not die if his picture is destroyed.  You may say, ‘He’s put a lot of himself into it,’ but you only mean that all its beauty and interest has come out of his head.  His skill is not in the picture in the same way that it is in his head, or even in his hands.”

I don’t believe it is true that Hindu philosophy would hold that if the universe did not exist, God would not exist either, but that is beside Lewis’ main point.  Lewis’ real point is that “…God is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous,’ a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another.”  This assertion makes clear that (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) human beings are entrusted by God with a mission to fight evil and make the world a better place.  From this understanding, the modern concepts of Christian Providence and progress have arisen:  the notion that over time, we can and should improve the world actively by making it more good and less evil.

On the other hand, as Lewis notes, the Hindu-Buddhist view sees the world as infused by God.  God is inside every mineral and every blade of grass, and He is in the “color purple” in a field of wildflowers as Alice Walker so poetically described Him in her novel of the same name.  At the same time, however, the Hindu-Buddhist God is also outside the world in the sense that He is a transcendent Being of Light and Love that none of us can ever fully perceive.  What Christianity regards as a fallen world, Hinduism and Buddhism see as a dualistic world of “maya” or illusion.  The principal goal of each human life is not so much to improve the world by actively interfering with it as it is to influence it indirectly in a positive, uplifting direction by learning how to pierce the veil of illusion in an attitude of prayer and meditation.  When we do this, we create an aura of peace around us that extends in ever-widening circles through society like tranquil ripples on a pond.

But why should Christians accept Lewis’ antagonism toward pantheism?  As I noted in my July 18 entry, “Pantheism, Maya and the Movie ‘Avatar,’” director James Cameron effectively and compellingly explores the theme of pantheism in “Avatar,” and he was roundly criticized by the Christian right for equating the artist God with his Creation.  Despite this stance, can’t Christianity be interpreted to be compatible with a pantheistic view?  After all, when Picasso painted a canvas, wasn’t his artistic spirit inexorably expressed in every one of his brushstrokes?  Didn’t he see himself in his creation?  Didn’t he admire it as an offspring of himself, in fact as a part of him?  Having recently seen an impressive retrospective of Picasso’s work at the Seattle Art Museum, I can report witnessing the artist’s genius – the divine spark – in every one of his two dimensional works and three-dimensional objects.  Picasso said about his own work that he didn’t do it himself; instead, the spirit that he called “Painting” ruled him.

Certainly, Christianity perceives mankind as being emotionally at a remove from God – we are fallen creatures – but why this should mean that God does not still infuse our fallen world with his Spirit, I cannot imagine.  In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis is careful to outline a mainstream Christian theology that is, at least in theory, accepted by all denominations including the Church of England and Roman Catholicism.  In that sense, his Christianity is orthodox in a general, widespread sense, understood and accepted by all denominations but particular to none of them.  Yet this “orthodox” Christianity has been distilled over centuries from many divergent viewpoints.  At least a few churches in an Early Christian movement that some scholars have argued was heterodox enough to have endorsed the concept of reincarnation certainly must have been open-minded enough to embrace pantheism.

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