A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Divorce Be With You

I'd like to thank everyone who recommended C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. I finally bought a copy yesterday (when I finally found a copy), and after Christian Union, spent a quiet evening reading it. I'd forgotten how much I like C.S. Lewis. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia and after reading Out of the Silent Planet I raved about it for ages. I can even remember that when I first read The Magician's Nephew it was a quiet, dull, rainy day rather like the one described in the book, and I read it lying on my bed... I read The Last Battle on a train, and read The Horse and his Boy at school. I was surprised but delighted when Cor and Aravis got married. My memory of the other books is a bit fuzzy because I saw the BBC television versions first.

I bought Mere Christianity and borrowed The Four Loves, and haven't finished either yet. So I rather forgot about how much I loved Lewis's fiction... which was actually a good thing because I didn't know, or at least I'd entirely forgotten, what to expect.

I loved it. It manages somehow to be entertaining and instructional at the same time. It's so painfully insightful. The picture of Hell manages to be wretched yet somehow comical, a dreary, discordant, bleak, apathetic place, with poor proud souls desperate for ridiculous trifles. It's rather like a perpetual wet Wednesday afternoon. When the pathetic remains of people find themselves in heaven, they don't seem to understand or grasp the greater glory present. I enjoyed Lewis's method of telling - at some points even the unnamed narrator (Lewis himself, of course) seemed unsettled at the ways of Heaven. It didn't seem preachy or patronising, merely thoughtful, sharing, honest.

I had to wonder if he was right. It seemed that the things keeping the damned souls from becoming whole and enjoying heaven were from their own pride - although it was manifest in all sorts of forms (The one that both amused and disturbed me most was a man who appeared to be a liberal theologian... I had too much in common with him). They are entreated to repent, entreated to surrender, entreated to give up their ridiculous idols to understand the true God - but many of them refuse. The theologian would rather have theology than truth. The painter would rather have paint than beauty. They would all rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. And they are all utterly ridiculous and pathetic, and yet you can't hate them because you understand that they are all hurting themselves most of all...

I do wonder if we are, in some sense, standing in glory yet refusing to see. It would be easier, we think, to have pride than endure shame. It would be better, we think, to live our way even if it is wretched and miserable, than to subject ourselves to God's way, even if it is glorious and beautiful. I wonder if what God really wants to hear us say is not, "I'll study the Bibe, I'll pray, I'll feed the hungry, I'll tend to the sick, I'll leave my bad habits, I'll try and be utterly perfect in every way..." but just "I give up. I'm a sinner. You're God. Your will be done."

It's an interesting thought. I wonder about God... is he patiently waiting for me to get it? For all our glory and all our self-improvement, we may have missed the bit about becoming like little children. What I like about children is that although they may be less wise, less educated and less experienced than the rest of us, they do tend to be a good deal more sane. It seemed that in Lewis's belief, to get Heaven all you had to do was accept Heaven. God's love is right there waiting for us. Are we too proud to take it?

'Listen!' said the White Spirit. 'Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you found them. Become that child again: even now.'
'Ah, but when I became a man I put away childish things.'
'You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.'

I childishly giggled at his audacity at using the M word. But it's a shocking comparison, don't you think?

"Let's consider your age to begin with--how old are you?"
"I'm seven and a half, exactly."
"You needn't say 'exactually,' " the Queen remarked. "I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I ca'n't believe that!" said Alice.
"Ca'n't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one ca'n't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

For a while it all made perfect sense. I tucked The Great Divorce next to The Shock of Your Life in the vague hope that such behaviour would cause The Shock of Your Life to spontaneously combust (I'm keeping it for critical analysis, and to see if I can work out why it infuriated me so much. But that's for another time). Then I got up this morning and wasn't so sure.

I was pondering Hell in my usual fashion when, having pretty much decided I had rejected the idea of it as the place of eternal torment for anyone who didn't say the Sinner's Prayer in time, I reconsidered and wondered if I should try and believe in it. Is that what God wants? Certainly people who do believe - or at least say they do - appear to be doing the Christian thing a lot better than me. Actually that's not fair because there are also people who don't believe it who are doing the Christian thing a lot better than me. But it's so infuriating asking God for truth and still not being sure. I wonder, has he given me the answer and I just can't accept it? There is eternal torment, and I am afraid of it - or there is no eternal torment and I don't want to be wrong or different or dare to tell other Christians what I think?

There have been times when I have felt very certain either way. I've taken to observing universalist sentiments in Christian meetings, usually given by people who'd entirely deny that they are universalists. There is a part of me quite happily settled with the universalist camp, and certainly a part of me that just likes the universalists because they make the traditional doctrine of hell sound so ridiculous. But God seems to be declining to comment, and that's what bothers me. I can't tell if he's infuriated at my disobedience and waiting for me to leave such a 'vain idol' - or if he's waiting for me to fully understand. What can I say? I tell him that I'm sorry I don't understand, I'm sorry I'm proud, and ask for his patience with me as I slowly attempt to grasp the truth. I ask him to show me... I sometimes get infuriated myself, bothering him like a tiny mosquito - I know he could just swat me away, so obviously he's patient, but he seems so silent. It seems almost strange that there were times that I felt God was so very close. I wonder if God lives in Cambridge but not in York!

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner quotes a letter written by Carroll to a young girl of his aquaintance, with reference to the passage quoted above:

Don't be in such a hurry to believe next time--I'll tell you why--If you set to work to believe everything, you will tire out the muscles of your mind, and then you'll be so weak you won't be able to believe the simplest true things. Only last week a friend of mine set to work to believe Jack-the-giant-killer. He managed to do it, but he was so exhausted by it that when I told him it was raining (which was true) he couldn't believe it, but rushed out into the street without his hat or umbrella, the consequence of which was his hair got seriously damp, and one curl didn't recover its right shape for nearly two days.

It is sadly not explained what the girl he was writing to (Mary MacDonald, the daughter of George MacDonald, who appears as a help and teacher for Lewis in The Great Divorce... I bet you didn't think I could make a connection out of that, did you?) was trying to believe. Gardner says before quoting this letter "I believe it," declared Tertullian in an oft-quoted defense of the paradoxical character of certain Christian doctrines, "because it is absurd." Yet he doesn't explain whether this was the source of Mary's attempted belief. Lewis Carroll was the alter-ego of Rev. Charles Dodgson, so being a clergyman I would like to trust him... only he didn't believe in eternal torment either (George MacDonald didn't either, but C.S. Lewis reduces this part of his belief to a brief remark at the end of The Great Divorce).

I wonder. It is all very curious, as Alice might say. I suppose I should be humble... Stop bothering Chrissie about it too. I just ask God to be merciful and heed the words of Lewis:

There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself... As if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in smaller matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copied had lost the power to read them? Or an organiser of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of snares.

Don't forget that you can still comment on my Calling all Hell believers post! Your thoughts are always interesting.

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  • At 12:39 pm , Anonymous Tiffer said...

    Glad it helped - I'd forgotten the M word was used! I think that the book isn't a perfect analogy but certainly helps us out trying to get a handle on eternity.

    Once again your honesty is great to read - it reminds me of a time when I was honest to myself :)

    I may have already said this but look at what live as a universalist holds - no need to evangelise, holiness becomes less important, harder to find people who think along the same lines as you...wait a minute - sounds like evangelicalism!

    Hope all is well.

  • At 8:42 pm , Blogger Dr Moose said...

    Thanks for the record of your insights and thoughts, as ever. If I went to the same extent I would never get any work done.

    They say that the road to hell (whether literal or not) is paved with good intentions. I had every intention of a long and reasoned response to your questions for hell believers post - but it hasn't happened. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But it's honest.


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