Thursday, March 6, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C. S. Lewis (Part III)

(This is a continuation of earlier posts. See here and here.)

Certain levels of virtue are beyond human grasp and belong solely to God. For a human being to imitate these virtues is to, either, not understand what such a virtue really entails or to commit an act of fraud. It is better to be someone who clearly does not have these virtues than to be someone pretending to possess them. For example, C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on Psalms, praises the violent, “unchristian” language in Psalms, where the speaker curses his enemies and asks God to show them no mercy. Furthermore, he defends the Pharisees in the New Testament, who refuse to have any dealings with sinners, unlike Jesus who embraces sinners.

According to Lewis, if you really believed that God was all powerful, all just and all righteous, it should bother you to no end that God does not come down and smite the sinners of the world and do justice. The mere sight of sight of sin should be enough to cause you to yell and to curse. It is impossible for a mortal person to comprehend the evil of sin while at the same time loving the sinner absolutely. If you claim to be able to love sinners then you clearly do not really comprehend sin, or just lying. So from Lewis’ perspective the “Christians,” who take a non-judgmental attitude toward sinners, particularly those sinners who are successful businessmen, politicians or celebrities, are at a lesser level than those Pharisees in the New Testament, whom Jesus rebukes for being so judgmental. If you are Jesus, whom Lewis believed was God incarnate, then it is possible to recognize the evil of sin and still love the sinner. For anyone else, though, the highest level you can expect is to hate. (See Reflections On Psalms chapters III and VII.)

In the Great Divorce, Lewis describes the following situation in heaven:

But, beyond all these, I saw other grotesque phantoms in which hardly a trace of the human form remained; monsters who had faced the journey to the bus stop – perhaps for them it was thousands of miles – and come up to the country of the Shadow of Life and limped far into it over the torturing grass, only to spit and gibber out in one ecstasy of hatred their envy and (what is harder to understand) their contempt of joy. The voyage seemed to them a small price to pay if once, only once, within sight of that eternal dawn, they could tell the prigs, the toffs, the sanctimonious humbugs, the snobs, the “haves,” what they thought of them. (Great Divorce pg. 78-79)

From Lewis’ perspective, there is a great “virtue” to these monsters: “Those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that know nothing at all about it and think they have it already.” (Great Divorce pg. 79) The monsters, unlike most other people, understand what the stakes are; God is a goodness against which no goodness can stand. To come to God means to surrender all claims to virtue; to admit that you are nothing and that nothing you have stood for has any value. These monsters are closer to salvation than those who piously claim to be surrendering themselves to God’s will while, either, not understanding what that really means, and hence not understanding God, or perjuring themselves.

To bring this all back to Orual, the anti-heroine of Till We Have Faces. While it would be nice to say that she should have humbly submitted herself to the gods, such a thing is not possible and therefore it is something that we could never ask of her. Psyche could do this because Psyche was a goddess in human form. For Orual to meekly give herself, over like Psyche, would not have been virtue. For her to do such a thing would have meant that she either did not really understand the gods or that she was committing perjury. Orual’s great virtue is that she understood, at least subconsciously, what the stakes were. The gods then allowed her to put them on trial, which allowed Orual to consciously understand what was at stake. At this point, Orual had reached the highest level of virtue that a human being could possibly attain on their own. The divine Psyche then stepped in and granted Orual the gift of grace. This allowed Orual to truly submit herself to the gods, with perfect understanding as to what that submission entailed.


James Pate said...

Hi Izgad.

What do you as an observant Jew think about God not being able to tolerate any sin?

I ask this because, as you probably know, a lot of evangelicals argue that no one is good enough to get into heaven, since even Mother Theresa and Ghandi have some sin, and God cannot tolerate any sin in his presence.

But my impression of Judaism is that it sees God as more realistic. Of course people sin, since no one is perfect, but God will reward those who have more good deeds than bad.


Izgad said...

One thing that you have to understand about Judaism is that being saved and going to heaven/hell are very much side issues. Jews, even Orthodox ones, tend not to think in these terms, though Jews do believe in these things. The question that Jews ask themselves is not are they saved, but what is God’s Law and are they properly fulfilling it. As Judaism recognizes that human beings are fallible, repentance plays a very large roll.
For Christians the climax of the calendar is the salvation narrative played out over Good Friday and Easter, where Jesus dies to bring salvation to all mankind. The climax of the Jewish calendar is the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The central theme of these holidays is repentance in the face of God’s impending judgment. Take a look at the liturgy for these holidays. You will not find any talk of heaven or hell, but of the awesomeness of God’s judgment, the threat of earthly punishment and of mankind’s need to repent in the face of such judgment.
If you are interesting in a traditional Jewish perspective on repentance I would recommend R’ Jonah Gerondi’s Gateways of Repentance. It is available in English translation.