Sunday, February 24, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C.S Lewis

Tobie recently put up a post on Till We Have Faces. (See here.) Most people only know C. S. Lewis from his Narnia chronicles. This novel, though, is my personal favorite work of his. This is a very different book than Narnia; it is much more mature and it is quite dark.

One of the things that I love about C. S. Lewis is that he was willing to face up to some of the dark implications of believing in God. Unlike most outreach specialists, Lewis did not take the line that God exists, he loves us, we are going to be saved by believing in him and therefore everything is wonderful. Lewis, throughout his work, questioned God’s goodness and wondered if mankind would be better off without God’s active involvement. This was more than just a literary or rhetorical device, one gets the sense from reading Lewis that he really struggled with these issues and, down to the very end of his life, had his doubts. (Read, for example, A Grief Observed)

Lewis’ dark side finds its expression in Till We Have Faces in the figure of Orual, Lewis’ Nietzschian super-heroine. Anyone who thinks that Lewis was a misogynist, whose female characters were either evil witches or meek, obedient, good little girls, clearly has not considered this novel.

Orual is one of the evil sisters from the Cupid and Psyche myth who cause Psych to disobey her husband, the god Cupid, by looking at his face and be banished from him. In Lewis’ hands, though, Orual becomes something far more complex than a jealous fairy tale sister. This novel is her defense and her prosecution of the gods. She argues that it is the gods who have sinned: what sort of god gives random commands, that serve no purpose, and damns those who fail to keep them? What sort of god hides his face and only speaks in hints and riddles? Ultimately what she did to Psyche was justified because the gods had no right to take Psyche, the person she loved most in the world, away in the first place. Who gave them the right to interfere with her life and steal her happiness?

For they [the gods] will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another: what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places? (pg. 218)

It was Lewis’ genius that he almost succeeds at getting us to agree with Orual. Ultimately Lewis’ answer to Orual is that the gods could not face her until she herself had a face. She needed to turn inward and face herself; to come to terms with the fact that she had hurt the people she loved most in the world with her love and because she loved them. In the end, Orual submits herself to the gods and in return is given the gift of grace by Psyche.

I disagree with Tobie, that Lewis is arguing that we blindly submit ourselves to God, accept his will and surrender our own personalities. Lewis’ theology was far more complex than that. For Lewis, the starting point is the fact that we have strong personalities and that we struggle with God, even to the point of hating him. It is only once we have established this adversarial relationship that we can turn around and give ourselves over to him with all of our doubts and issues. It is a dialectical relationship between fighting and submitting, with no easy answers or quick roads to salvation.


Tobie said...

The way that I read the book, the second part almost negated the first part. yes, at the beginning, Orual fought and was almost justified. But at the end, she realized that her doubts had been self-delusion, that she had always known that the god was not a monster but her selfishness had made her reluctant to give Psyche up. Her impassioned accusation/confession negates her previous defiance. I would have loved the book much, much more if she had been allowed to stand before the gods and really yell at them, really hit them with the statement that you quoted. But she didn't.

Psyche never doubted. Psyche never fought. Psyche was a meek, obedient, good little girl. And it was Psyche that the god loved and Psyche that could bring grace to others.

Izgad said...

While Orual ultimately loses the argument that does not negate the value of her making the charges that she does.
Psyche is a creature above and beyond this earth. She is a goddess from birth, a female Jesus Christ. For that reason the story is not about her. She has no need for any struggle.

Tobie said...

Well, yes, it sort of does negate her choices. From the beginning, Lewis casts seeds of doubt in her own interpretation of her beliefs- we are meant to wonder whether she really doubts or only convinces herself that she doubts, with the balance of the evidence slightly towards the latter. Until the second part, which comes down firmly in the latter camp, arguing that the doubt was created by Orual's own selfishness. The message, to me, is pretty clear: We say that G-d is mysterious and we excuse our lack of faith, but in the end, this is simply because we are not loving enough to accept the truths that we do not wish to believe.

Tobie said...

Oh, and also, I agree that Psyche is not a character that struggles or grows, but it is instructive to study Lewis's vision of the goddess- the female Jesus Christ. It's a pretty passive figure, certainly in terms of the proper relationship with the god, no?