December 10, 2005


Into the Wonder: You won't understand the genius of C. S. Lewis's literary criticism, satire, science fiction, and theological essays until you spend time in Narnia. (Alan Jacobs, 12/09/2005, Christianity Today)

I want to suggest that Lewis's willingness to be enchanted held together the various strands of his life: his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story. What is "secretly present in what he said about anything" is an openness to delight, to the sense that there's more to the world than meets the jaundiced eye, to the possibility that anything could happen to someone who's ready to meet anything.

For someone with eyes to see and the courage to explore, even an old wardrobe full of musty coats could become the doorway to another world.

After all the Narnia books were done, Lewis wrote an essay in which he explained that the stories began when he started "seeing pictures in [his] head"—or rather, when he started paying attention to pictures he had been seeing all along, since the "picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood," which we find near the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, first entered his head when he was 16 years old. It was only when he was about 40 that he said to himself, "Let's try to make a story about it."

As we have seen, it was a particularly trying time in his life when he wrote the first Narnia tale. Yet something—some instinctively strong response to the offer of enchantment, perhaps made all the more strong because of his difficult circumstances—made him start writing, even though he "had very little idea how the story would go."

What made him write this way, and why it is such a good thing that he did—these are hard topics to talk about without seeming sentimental. Yet they are necessary topics. In most children, but in relatively few adults, we see a willingness to be delighted to the point of self-abandonment. This free and full gift of oneself to a story is what produces the state of enchantment. Why do we lose the ability to give ourselves in this way? Perhaps adolescence introduces the fear of being deceived, the fear of being caught believing in what others have ceased to believe. To be naive, to be gullible—these are the great humiliations of adolescence.

Lewis never seems to have been fully possessed by this fear, though he felt it at times. "When I was 10, I read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50, I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

It was Richard Wagner's vast landscapes of heroic myth that captured Lewis above all, and the gentler "Faerie" world of the English imagination, from Spenser to Tennyson, William Morris, and George MacDonald. He once wrote that stories which sounded "the horns of Elfland" constituted "that kind of literature to which my allegiance was given the moment I could choose books for myself." It was perhaps inevitable that he would become a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, and that his first work of fiction would be an elaborate allegory based on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. He consumed works of fantasy and then science fiction (in which genre he would write his first novels). It was not likely that such an open mind would remain an atheist long, though Lewis did hold out as an unbeliever until nearly 30.

Lewis remained, in this particular sense, childlike, that is, able to receive pleasure from the kinds of stories that tend to give pleasure to children. Ruth Pitter, a poet and close friend of Lewis's, wrote, "His whole life was oriented and motivated by an almost uniquely persisting child's sense of glory and of nightmare. The adult events were received into a medium as pliable as wax, wide open to the glory and equally vulnerable, with a man's strength to feel it all, and a great scholar's and writer's skills to express and interpret."

Surely Lewis would have said that when we can no longer be "wide open to the glory," we have lost not just our childlikeness, but also something near the core of our humanity. Those who will never be fooled can never be delighted, because without self-forgetfulness there can be no delight, and this is a great and grievous loss.

It's always amusing that the secular think closing themselves off in such a manner and concentrating thoroughly on the self marks their ultimate victory.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2005 12:00 AM


Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 9:05 AM

Oh we have plenty of imagination. We just don't confuse it with reality.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 11:18 AM

rd: not really. lots of polemics and propaganda, but not much art. once a person cuts themself off from the wonder of life, they really don't have much to say to the rest of the world. the sistine chapel wasn't painted by an aetheist.

Posted by: believe or die at December 10, 2005 11:41 AM

What's with this "cuts themself off from the wonder of life" nonsense? Do you know any atheists, or do you just construct strawmen like OJ?

The wonder of life is all around us, no need for secret knowledge or revelations to make it appear. Religion just gets in the way of that appreciation for life.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 11:54 AM

I'd tweak your observation just a tad, oj. Magic works ... and Lewis was surely a literary magician ... because it resonates with the unconscious self. Indeed, it works best when it resonates with what Jung called the universal subconscious. Semantics, perhaps.

Posted by: ghostcat at December 10, 2005 1:16 PM


You aren't an atheist.

Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 2:03 PM

Technically I am an agnostic, but I don't see much of a distinction between agnosticism and atheism. I'm not a theist in any traditional sense. The following paragraph comes close to describing me (from Wikipedia):

For example, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich described God as the "ground of Being", the "power of Being", or as "Being itself", and caused controversy by making the statement that "God does not exist", resulting in him occasionally being labelled as an atheist. Nevertheless, for Tillich, God is not "a" being that exists among other beings, but is Being itself. For him, God does not "exist" except as a concept or principle; God is the basis of Being, the metaphysical power by which Being triumphs over non-Being.

However, most atheists who deny the existence of deities as supernatural beings would also deny this and similar conceptions of God, or simply consider them incomprehensible.

Call me an incomprehensiblist, or ineffablist. The following paragraph also describes me:

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook [26][27], first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of god, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.

But the traditional images of God are what commonly constitute a definition of God, so it is paradoxical to say that someone who denies the image accepts God.

So unless you can come up with a better term than these, I'll call myself an atheist.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 4:02 PM


Anyone who insists on all the effects of God but just can't bring themself to say they believe in God publicly is a Theist in all but his own mind.

Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 5:20 PM

The argument isn't about the effects, but the cause.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 5:30 PM


Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 5:39 PM

The cause is ineffable.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 5:42 PM


Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 5:45 PM

It's my job to keep you idolators in line.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 5:52 PM

"I am that I am"

Posted by: oj at December 10, 2005 5:58 PM
It's my job to keep you idolators in line.
Pedal faster, we aren't getting anywhere! :-) Posted by: Kirk Parker at December 10, 2005 6:34 PM

Robert -

One working definition of atheism is "the conviction that there is no god". One working definition of agnosticism is "the conviction that mortals can never know the true nature of god, if indeed there is one". By those two definitions, I am an agnostic. Which are you?

Posted by: ghostcat at December 10, 2005 7:05 PM

The two definitions are not mutually exclusive. If you acknowledge that you cannot know the nature of god, then the word god can't really have any meaningful content for which you can say "I believe". You can't say I believe in god if you cannot define the proposition that the word god stands for.

As commonly used, the term god stands for a personal being that also happens to be the supernatural creator of existence. It is that definition of god that I disbelieve, that is, personal being-ness is one of the effects of which OJ speaks above.

Personal beings are artifacts of "creation", they are contingent on the properties of creation, and limited to the four dimensional time-space fabric in which they experience. The cause, or creator, must by definition transcend these properties.

Does this help?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 10, 2005 10:11 PM


The line forms behind Mr. Hitchens. (Or is that the queue?)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at December 10, 2005 11:57 PM

Robert -

That helps not a whit. My question was whether YOU are convinced there is no god ... anthropomorphic or otherwise.

I myself am not so convinced. Quite the opposite: I am convinced there is a universal force/spirit/soul. But be damned if I know his/her/its true nature. It's a wonderful mystery, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Posted by: ghostcat at December 11, 2005 12:54 AM


Your question is unimportant. Robert believes in all the effects that can only come if the cause exists. It matters not whether he can wrap his mind around the Cause.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2005 7:38 AM


I just love you guys when anyone suggests the religious are more of anything. "Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell you, we are every bit as moral, innocent, wondrous, dutiful, honorable, poetic, outward-looking, charitable, blah, blah as you chanters. We just have better sex."

Are you going to tell us you are just as spiritual too?

Posted by: Peter B at December 11, 2005 7:47 AM


Yes, you've reasoned your way to God but await a personal intervention before you'll believe. I choose to believe without the Born Again experience.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2005 8:03 AM


Keep in mind, Robert's specific protest is always that he can be just as good a Christian without God, which cedes the entire argument.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2005 8:55 AM

Robert: Does "2" exist? Or Pi? Does "pretty" exist? Does "love"? Does the Declaration of Independence exist?

Posted by: David Cohen at December 11, 2005 2:01 PM

Peter, did I mention sex? Your insistence on injecting sex into every discussion makes me wonder if you are spending too much time with your keyboard.

OJ, morality is a human phenomenon, not a strictly Christian one. Morality no more makes a person Christian than drinking wine makes one French.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 11, 2005 2:04 PM

I am convinced there is a universal force/spirit/soul. But be damned if I know his/her/its true nature.

One question, ghostcat. If the truth were to be revealed to you, how would you know if your belief were true? What would you be looking for?

I deny anthropomorphic gods. There are no otherwise gods, the term has no meaning otherwise. You'd have to create another term and then define it before I could say one way or another.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 11, 2005 2:09 PM

RD, so your position is that life arose spontaneously ? that is one gigantic leap of faith; far larger than is required to accept that there is a maker.

Posted by: surrender dorothy at December 11, 2005 2:16 PM


How do you know anything not revealed is true? You don't. Everything we "know" is taken on faith.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2005 2:49 PM


No, it isn't. It's Judeo-Christianity.

Posted by: oj at December 11, 2005 2:50 PM

Robert -

Father-projections are not the only conceivable deity. Once you get past that truth, you may be able to accept the existence of a Great Spirit. Manitou rocks!

As for revelation, I've been there more than once. While I can't consciously recall the details, or rationally analyze them, they are as real as my dreams and the subconscious dimension of my self. Yours, too.

Posted by: ghostcat at December 11, 2005 4:51 PM

If you believe in a transcendent reality, then you are not an atheist. I think one can say that atheism posits a materialist reductionist view of reality. An atheist makes a positive affirmation of what reality is just as much as theist. If there is another form of atheism other than materialist reductionism, I'd like to be told.

If you don't know, then you are agnostic.

If you reject the materialist reductionist viewpoint, but don't know or understand the nature of transcendent reality, then you are definitely religious, but undecided as to the nature of God. I think this is what Ghostcast is talking about.

Once you accept a transcendent reality and make speculations on the nature of God, then you start defining dogmas and enter into the area where most people talk on religion. Because people desire certainty rather than "I don't know," sometimes very silly dogmas develop to plug the logical gaps.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 12, 2005 1:26 PM