Lewis Redux: A Postmodern Dialogue
Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
I was wandering in cyberspace, moving closer to a mood of vague Christmas joy, but melancholy over my own captivity to narrow horizons and shallow dreams, when I happened upon (or it happened upon me) a website unlike one I'd ever seen before--tucked away, in a corner, beyond any search engine or ftp protocol. The screen was blank, page white, except for the underlined exhortation, aligned at the bottom right corner, Come and See!
What joker, fool, or sage was at the other end of the net tonight? I clicked on the link anchored by the imperative Come!, and was transported to a site without ornamentation or memory-laden graphics. Just plain words, flat on the screen.
"Lewis, here, Jack."
I was startled.
I--as many--had found in C. S. ("Jack") Lewis an amiable, skeptical, and category-defying companion for traversing what began as the burgeoning and what ends as the bloody Twentieth Century; how fortuitous to come upon a fellow enthusiast with an active imagination, audacious enough to claim to be Lewis! Having just spent the better part of the day assessing my semester-long efforts to teach Lewis's life and works, this diversion was welcome. I had elected to teach a course on Lewis precisely to get past my students' watchful dragons, to assist them in seeing how Lewis has discerned and demolished many of the twentieth century's hidden agendas: the myth of progress, the innumerable problems of unreflective relativism, the maniacal hedonism of capitalistic excess, and the adoration of machines. I did not want to be the only witness to Lewis's plaintive, scholarly, indefatigable "deconstruction" of late Western thought; why, his very vocabulary and fearlessness in engaging modern (and what we call post-modern thought), has made it possible in large measure for any of us even to imagine an alternative to a world dominated by incessant autobiography and the worship of the new and the now. I had always wondered what Lewis would say to us, to me, were he alive.
I would play along with this inviting masquerade.
"Jack? Jack Lewis? Clive Staples Lewis? It's Edwards, er, Bruce . . . "
"Bruce, --how the duce, sorry, deuce are you? (Clumsy fingers can't get used to this damnable keyboard!) I've been watching you, and enjoying your pedagogical experiment."
"My what? Oh, you mean my course on Lewis, I mean my course on your works."
I was impressed; this websurfer had done his homework and had actually been following the pace and products of our Fall class. on the net.
"Well, 'Jack,' I'm weathering it, end of term and all, and those blasted administrative chores I've taken on, but, no matter, I've more pressing matters to seek your counsel on, since you're, as it were, 'on line.'"
"On line? Oh, quite right. We have some freedom here, you know, to peek in, to have a look, and, like tonight, occasionally to 'weigh in.' I've taken a particular interest in you."
"Uhhh. . where's 'here'? Freedom? Peek? Interest in me? What campus are you on 'Jack?'"
I didn't like the tone of that last remark; could this fellow be at a federal penitentiary?
"Campus? Oh, I'm done with schools and schooling, Bruce. You might say I 'graduated' many years ago, thirty-two to be exact."
I now knew I was in the middle of something far more nefarious and otherworldly than I had thought. I would have to play along with my clever impersonator a bit longer.
"Well, Jack, since you've 'peeking in' and all, I suppose you've noticed you're still very popular--Catholics and Protestants alike read you, but especially those ultra-conservative fundevangelicals . . . why they hardly read any other Christian writers. . ."
"The fundevangelicals--a neologism I coined to describe--"
"Be careful, Bruce; sloppy categorization, lumping everybody into one camp for the purpose of dismissing them--a dangerous habit of mind. Some groupings are necessary, I know, for initial consideration and debate, but, beware: all such groupings conceal more than they reveal. Here, old man, every individual creature is uniquely loved, known, specified in its creaturehood. You remember the old nominalist debates--is each thing a particular or a universal? Well, up here ('up' is relative, of course!) the problem is solved. . ."
"All are particulars. . ."
". . . and, all are universals. There is no distinction. Each of us was/is sui generis, one of a kind. All along that's how God 'imagined' us. (Once you get here, which is not a place, actually, but an order or dimension of being that cannot be fathomed by mortal folk, it will be immediately and spontaneously clear. My Great Divorce wasn't so far off!) . . . Bruce, when God 'imagines' it's not like human daydreaming, for with Him an 'image' becomes concrete, or should I say 'manifest.' ('Concrete' is another of your, sorry, our 'terran' words that make little sense to the departed soul.) Concrete compared with what? This is true 'reality,' as solid and dense and 'here' as any existence could be--just like, you recall, perhaps, in Perelandra when the Green Lady. . ."
"Look, sorry, Jack, I, I, appreciate the distance between us, literally--
"Literally! Another of those terran concepts! As if anything on earth could be anything but a metaphor for the kind of being, of transcendent reality that the departed like me experience, why I--"
I realized I was beginning to drawn in, that I was taking this very seriously, much too seriously, unless it were the case that my interlocutor were no computer trick, but somehow the real Jack Lewis.
"OK, just tell me, Jack, is Christianity the one, true religion? What about America, will it survive? And the West itself, is it destined to--"
"Bruce, I can't answer those questions."
"Can't? Why not, who better to--"
"Well, it's not that I can't answer them, in fact I can, quite easily; but, well, to answer them in the way you have posed them, with the prototypically human, ultimately definitive, historically encompassing perspective, etc., etc., would do neither you nor your students any good. (Whoops! I've not used the etcetera since I left; it's not a word or concept that makes any sense here, either; neither 'et al.' nor "etc.' fit; there is no 'and so on' in heaven; everything is specifically and exactly what it is and nothing else and, well, carelessly to consign items and beings to any form of ellipsis is, well, it's the essence of that other realm below, where nothing is (any longer) what it is, and no-body and no-thing exists in itself. Hell is one long etcetera.)
"Really, Jack, I think you're dodging my questions. They are--aren't they?--straightforward?"
"Wait, Bruce--all questions are situated in some context or other; they don't spring from some pure or static mode of being such that they can be answered prescriptively in the way humans think (and I once thought); to call your question or any other 'straightforward' is to grant it the sobriety and ultimacy of being that only God can possess--"
"No straight answer from you, I see--is it some 'oath of secrecy' you've had to subscribe to since you left?"
"If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were becoming quite sarcastic, my good friend. Don't you see what you're accusing me of is that which they accused your Elder Brother when He became planetary, er, human? No straight answers, they said. Always answering questions with questions. Nearly every earnest query met by a story of some sort to be interpreted by the hearers at their peril. You humans you're so, so--"
"Preoccupied with our own importance, a false of urgency?"
"Well, that too, but what I meant to say is, you fashion a world and the rules for it from the crib and then spend most of your lives asking why people and events don't conform to the rules you've made up. That's my biography, too, mind you."
"Now, hold on, you were an advocate of 'mere Christianity' when you were, uh, planetary, and. . ."
"Indeed, and still am for those still exiled. But up here, you see, we don't talk about Christianity or religion as if it were a system of thought or a philosophical argument, in fact, we don't talk about Christianity as such at all. There's no 'religion' here. Who needs to label or codify 'systems' of thought when your very mode of existence precludes the need for separating mind/body, soul/spirit, male/female, all of your, what did you call them, 'structuralist dichotomies. . .' (Descartes and Kant and Leibniz, bless them, lived their lives in a very small universe!)"
"You mean, heaven transcends all of our distinctions and categories?"
"If by 'transcend' you mean 'divests us of them,' then, yes, but, understand now, those were never the qualities or identifying features that 'individualized' or 'made unique' any creature in the first place."
"If not them, then what?"
"God in you, the image, the spark, the life--infinitely precious, ultimately unique, because God is the being than which no greater can be conceived, the greatest of all 'knowers,' Ultimate Mind, which is to say, Ultimate Spirit, Ultimate Person; each creature therefore bears the artistry of the creator in a manner--form and content--that is utterly 'one'--you are 'like' God, utterly so--and, also, that is utterly 'many'--'unlike' God, utterly different, and different from all the other creatures made, yet known to and made known by Him in a manner suited only to you. What you call existence is maintained by His holding you in fast contemplation, a contemplation which never fails. I can assure you, Bruce, there's never been anyone like you before or after; but don't get too puffed up--it's that way with us all! You cannot fathom the infinite diversity of the Creation--He positively revels in it. Your kind, all of you, would be scandalized by it on Terra--your notions of diversity are so limited! Oh, to be known and to know--these are the ultimate predicates, just as I and Thou are the ultimate Subjects. Thus--
"You are making me believe my questions are trivial or worse."
"Trivial? Well, all merely human endeavor is penultimate, subordinate, temporal--as it was designed to be, after all. When you come to face your true selfhood, as I have, as all of us departed have, you come to think of your planetary, terran life as pure preparation, each self-deluded 'serious' pursuit as having been something more like a 'game' or an 'adventure' whose principles and exploits were to be understood and mastered as a discipline rather than merely endured or, worse, escaped from: games and adventures that, since Eden, He would use to bring you 'Home'--"
"So much suffering, such violence, exploitation--to call human life a 'game' so sanitizes--"
"Sanitizes? You mean, as if God had turned his back on humankind and creation? I didn't say human life is a game, I said from certain heavenly vantage points, one's former planetary preoccupation with the self and its satisfactions looms as an elaborate game or adventure. Sanitizes? Are you a deist, for God's sake? The whole point of the incarnation--this is really elementary, Bruce, and I'm surprised to have to point it out--is to restore to wholeness the very fallen, very barren planetary life you caricature with glib abstractions--that's what suffering, violence, exploitation are to you in the prosperous West. But his incarnate life did more than that, it demonstrated what true humanhood is to be. Our Elder Brother underwent any and all the suffering, violence, exploitation humans can concoct. In his sojourn, his death, and his resurrection, He identified, condemned, and, if may I say it, outlived the rebellion that spread your corrupt 'patriarchalism' (emanating from Adam on down) originally, and in its place portrayed 'real' manhood, that is, loving, compassionate, merciful personhood. He was the man Adam was to be and wasn't; and the Gospels' depiction of how He 'related' to women and womanhood is unparalleled in 'ancient' literature (all equally 'ancient' to me, now), you know. He came as 'man' and not 'woman' not to privilege maleness, but to de-privilege it. Do you think God is 'male'?"
"I don't know what I think, you've got me twirling, Jack. You're no help."
"Sorry old chap, truly sorry. But, it's all to the good. Twirl if you must, but when you stop, stop on solid ground. You ask whether this or that -ism will survive. Planetary life was never--and heavenly life prohibitively is not--about -isms. There aren't any 'sociologists' in heaven, if you will, no poll takers, no spin doctors. There are some smart ones here but they quickly give up their pretensions of erudition; heaven, you see, strips us not only of our vices, but of our virtues as well--as Flannery O'Connor has reminded not a few of us here!"
"In the end, then, none of this matters, my Lewis course and scholarship, the fate of American culture or the West, my students' aspirations, 'all is vanity'?"
"You'll remember this from your vast reading of my puny oeuvre, but let me quote myself to you (Immodesty? to quote oneself, if true, is no sin, for there is no truth that He hasn't already uttered and all who are 'true' are so because of Him anyway): 'All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.' What is 'eternal'? What did your Elder Brother point to: faith, hope, and love? Nothing is ultimately 'vain'--even your 'fundavangelicalism'--if it somehow contributes to the initiation or imitation of these three, especially the latter, for that's what He 'is': Love. Love incognito at times, Love as painful truth occasionally, but Love nevertheless. Even your 'fundevangelicals' witness to this in their own faltering way. Because, you see, there only exist 'faltering' ways--partial, time-bound, paradoxical, elusive. You can never, from Terra, fully explain or understand any phenomena, even yourself. Only He can provide that because He's been both inside and outside of your world."
"Then it doesn't matter what view I take, what behavior I adopt? It's all the same? Liberal/conservative, believer/unbeliever, devout/skeptic?"
"There's the epitome of humanness for you--always either/or, dichotomous, anti-paradoxical. Believe me, I understand it--I was a master of the dichotomy and the trichotomy while I labored 'under the sun.' But what I immediately discovered here is that Heavenly truth is always paradoxical. But, by the same token, always true. Conformed to the real. To answer your question, Bruce, It matters a great deal."
"Matters? Matters how? Circles within circles. I feel I am trapped in a kaleidoscope."
"Indeed, now there's an apt metaphor: kaleidoscopic. That's planetary life for you. You just trace out one design and follow its linkage to another and by the time you comprehend it, it's changed, either by color, contour, or combination."
"There's no compass, then . . ."
"To the contrary. Revelation, reason, experience, God speaking through events, persons, texts. All quite useful maps. But don't confuse the maps for the destinations themselves, the Destination itself, I should say. You would have God spare us the journey, the negotiation, the navigation. Why do you think He speaks to us in dream and deed, word and wonder? Is not the Biblical record 'true'? Of course. But is it easy to believe and trust? Of course, not, for you must have your own encounter with Him. Should His presence and the path to Him be 'clearer'? Clearer to whom, my dear chap? Those who have eyes to see, see, and those who have ears to hear, hear. It's not His way, you know, confounding and dismaying as it may seem on Terra, to make sure that all things are all the time crystal clear to all. And what is "clear," after all--what the majority at any one pinpoint of myopic human history think? Understand this: the journey to Him and with Him is one by one, not en masse. There is no Scripture, no story, no experience of Him than cannot be gainsaid by the unbelieving. There must always be room for the personal discovery, the glory of hearing one's own name called--"
"Finally, then, what one believes doesn't matter."
"Not so; listen. It matters because at the end of self, to which all of us eventually come, awaits God. The path you take can be better or worse lit, can contain more or fewer obstacles, can be hastened or inhibited, can confuse or bless others on the journey."
"The end of self?"
"Sorry, what I mean is the end of our claims on self; forgive me, let's say it this way: when we die it is the end of our claims to use our and only our suspect lexicons and epistemologies to define ourselves, our neighbors, and the universe. They simply are no value here. On Terra, Christianity alone, 'mere' Christianity I hasten to add, can truly represents this--if may I say it--disarmingly 'wider' view, a faith simultaneously affirming unique, significant personhood while explaining how things went awry and how God acted to put them back aright. Cosmic in import, compassionate in comport. 'Mere' Christianity is resilient, you know: the regenerated life redeemed from the ravages of sectarian, culture-hued, gender-based, zeitgeist-driven dogma. In a word, The Life He lived, and Lives."
"Just where is this 'mere' Christianity?"
"All over, everywhere, if you seek it you will find it. But, mind you, it doesn't come self-labelled. And it certainly isn't, in the worst sense of that terran word, 'popular.' It won't be on your Six O'clock News. It's a journey you must choose to undertake for yourself. But there are some marvellous comrades along the way, I must say."
"Jack, I . . ."
"Must go, old fellow. Good chatting. Sorry, very sorry I can't be helpful in the way you'd like. But even if I could be, it would do you no good. You don't need my answers, you need yours, the ones God grants you. And you shall have them! In some ways, all of His answers to you will be analogous to all others, 'Come unto me ye heavy-laden and I will give you rest'; on the other hand, he comes to you, and you alone; what He says to you and how He says it--the 'rest' you get--I couldn't begin to guess or articulate. That, thankfully, is His business. His only one, I might add. . ."
And so the conversation ended, abruptly, an unexpected downtime by the SYSOP perhaps? I left the computer screen to saunter on, quivering in the light of paradox, chastened by the poverty of my own intellect, curiously warmed by the rediscovery of my mortality, and desperate to find out what lies beyond it.