Why I’ve Soured on C.S. Lewis
After achieving/being granted human intelligence, I felt a ravenous desire for knowledge about the unique qualities of human culture. Children’s literature was especially fascinating to me because there is, as you might guess, no suitable analogue for it among tigers.
The Chronicles of Narnia were among the first children’s books I read as a young(er) tiger. A bookstore near my house was reselling a full paperback set of the series for a reasonable sum–around $25. I told my editor about this–we had only just met–and he agreed to buy the set for me, seeing as I had no money at the time. English came to me quite rapidly and I had no trouble reading through them in the space of two dreary weeks in early March.
Reading the books in chronological order–from Magician’s Nephew through The Last Battle–left me in wonder at their achievement. On one level they felt somewhat trifling as stories. I had already been exposed to a number of examples of human culture that were far more complex and challenging. In these stories, morality was highly evident, the way to salvation obvious. Noble lions did not wage war with other noble lions but instead eldritch and ancient spectres–witches, giants, a dappled and motley assortment of moral outsiders. And the author stood proudly in the background, narrating stories of faith and triumph from behind the curtain of the pages. Cheerful adventures, fraught with danger but insured by a comforting sense of English familiarity, led to satisfying, if sometimes unexpected, results.
Lewis as a figure became a figure of obsession to me. As a tiger, I was and am of course not religious in the slightest. Because there are no ways that tigers can articulate beliefs and faith in language, religious practice as humans understand it is impossible for them. Having achieved humanlike intelligence, my lack of religious concern remained intact. And yet there I was deeply attracted to the subject, eager to absorb more information about this topic. The religious conviction shown through Lewis’ writing, even for children, reflected a dazzling certainty confidently lived through writing. Certainty, it seemed, of something revelatory and wonderful. I asked my editor about whether he had authored other works.
“Indeed,” came the response, “he was not the most prolific writer but he left a substantial legacy of written work. I would recommend trying Mere Christianity to understand his underlying assumptions and method before attempting his other works.”
This advice taken into consideration, I contrived to borrow a copy of Mere Christianity from my editor’s house without his knowledge, later returning it (somewhat surprised that he was upset at my theft). In that book I found the map to Narnia, the cartography Lewis used when he moved behind the curtain. Lewis’ own world was, I discovered, highly enchanted. Tigers tend to think of the world in simple terms of desire and satisfaction, of social bonds when necessary but generally in isolation from one another. Here was a robust vision of humanity as a collective united by…something I never quite understood. His method was cunning, introducing a novel notion–a unified, consistent moral law that prevailed throughout time–and from there extrapolated the existence of that curious entity known as God.
Moreover, this was not a God who was a moral law, an ideal, or a unifying cosmic force. This God was a person. A strange, distended kind of person, a person who seemed to me even more distant when named than when not. This was a person for whom dying was a means of helping others, who was not human and yet was. Who was more than a person but could be addressed in that lowly way. I was perplexed. Nothing in my experience indicated the existence of such a being, and it struck me that there was little use in being so powerful and appearing altogether powerless.
Tigers, after all, even those with humanlike intelligence, know nothing of God. A being so universal, so powerful that his very will set the rules, bound not just human experience but all history into a coherent order culminating in an ultimate and beautiful end. Sitting here in the wreckage of heaven, watching fire flare up from the holes we scratch in the trees, digging dwellings out of piles of nails and sloughing off patches of skin that run rotten, I still harbor rather serious doubts about sanity of this being.
None of that mattered. Christianity intoxicated me until I staggered under the obnoxious weight of its radiance. Lewis was only one conduit after awhile, one source of insight into what I found was an old, old tradition, one that was both loosely held and jealously guarded in the strange land I was living in. The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, Surprised By Joy, and his cosmic excursions into science fiction were regular items on my reading menu.
Lewis was a hero of mine. Not because I shared his faith–which I did not–but because he was able to articulate for me the essential diagnosis of what to me seemed like human madness. It was this infatuation with certainty, especially about infinite things, that led to so much striving, so much fury and waste of energy. I told these things to my editor once, and he retreated into one of his long gazes. I asked him what was going on behind those dark eyes of his, and he spoke slowly.
“Don’t be surprised if the well runs dry someday with him.”
In that moment, my brimming enthusiasm soured into apprehension, and it fizzed down into my mind, scouring naivety with it. I was frustrated, and asked for some more clarification.
“What I mean is that no human has the diagnosis quite right. You can’t draw so much from one well on these questions. When I was younger, C.S. Lewis was the rock on which my faith was built. I quoted him in almost every conversation related to religion. I understand well your transfixion at his certainty, his apparent command of logic. When I was younger, I thought to myself, ‘how could he be mistaken?’ Of course, nothing has changed with Lewis since then. The words say the same things, but I can no longer hear them the same way. That certainty–not all certainty but the comforting certainties and bravado he sold me–eventually hollowed themselves out. I used to tell everyone I met to read a Lewis book if I found they hadn’t read one yet, especially the nonfiction ones, the apologetics. I never recommend the apologetics anymore, but the fiction is better anyway.”
Years have passed, and through that time it slowly dawned for me what he was talking about. Eventually the old simplicities, the trilemma, the easy dichotomies, the lionizations (no pun intended) of all he loved, all took on a darker shade. They were problematized and complicated. At that point, I understood that nothing, not even that book that Lewis loved so much and so well, was simple and uncomplicated. Contrarily, all was accretions of errors shoring up errors, vast regions of imperfections that were at their most honest when they were their most modest. Now I rest in no easy solitude, and I feel alone in this heaven, scratching surfaces to see if they melt like plaster, hiding from the sun because strange noises buzz in the heat, searching through myself and finding nothing where I wanted it to be.
Aslan is probably the greatest lion I’ll ever know, but I prefer cats who stalk in the dark. I find in this world precious few lions, and even fewer that I can like. For now, I will run with the striped stalkers.