There are many authors and theologians I admire and appreciate for their insights and articulation of faith related topics. One that stands out for me as well as many others (though I do not agree with everything he states) is C. S. Lewis. His life and story of coming to an orthodox Christian faith is remarkable. He was not one who easily abandoned his agnosticism, but because of his astute mental practice, he has provided us with deeply analytical and logical explanations of Christianity. I am fond of many of his writings, but for the purpose of this article I am focusing on his concept of the Shadowlands.
Lewis’ speaks of the life we know as the Shadowlands—that real life has not yet begun. The idea that what we commonly call heaven is more real than reality, more substantive than what we currently experience, more true and solid than we are even able to fathom is a direct connection to Plato’s story of the cave.
Plato explained this concept in a thought-experiment: think of a cave, home to prisoners who spend all their lives chained up in it, facing a blank wall. Behind them a fire burns brightly. People move in procession in front of the fire, but behind the prisoners. The procession throws shadows on the wall. The prisoners watch the shadows: the shadows are all the reality they have. And that’s us. What humankind thinks is real – the material world – is nothing compared with the world of the spirit.
Lewis’ Great Divorce borrows from Plato this idea as well and describes heaven as very hard—not to those who belong, but to those who choose not to belong. The grass is like nails to those who refuse the offer of love and truth and beauty and life. These people are unable to surrender their self-salvation through their own petty means and consequently they experience an aversion to the gift—as if it is the very thing that they should avoid at all costs. For those who are able to lay down their tools of self-justification and humbly accept the gift, however, they themselves become solid and more real and therefore are not harmed by the hardness of heaven. It’s a wonderfully playful way to describe a truth that is difficult to articulate.
That Lewis uses an ancient Greek Philosopher’s idea of what this life is and what life beyond this life may be is not a misalignment of a Judeo-Christian concept with a non-believer’s ideas. Indeed, Plato’s idea points to the truth accurately, albeit missing the richness of what is contained. Plato’s separation of body and spirit, however, has been co-opted by Christian theology in a way that has not been helpful or accurate to the Judeo roots and sacred notion of life in its unity. That’s another issue altogether.
That we cannot begin to imagine heaven is the very sweetness of the gift. Paul writes that we are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure—in other words there is no ruler, no standard by which to measure or compare what we are to receive—there is no way to describe it for nothing in this life begins to even point toward the gift. Lewis takes Paul’s phrase “weight of glory” and preached a sermon by that title, in which he says we are too easily distracted and amused by making mud pies when we are offered a holiday at sea that we cannot even comprehend.
That heaven is more solid and more real and more substantive than what we know is a mystery. Instead, most concepts of heaven are ethereal and cloudlike, with wispy spirits floating like mist stirred by gentle breezes and everyone is mellow and appears to be high on some pharmaceutical compound.
Lewis had a way of turning our experiences and ideas inside out and exposing our “truths” as flimsy and fake. Though he was a single man well into his 50’s and then wed an American woman he met through correspondence, he had a profound understanding of love. He knew that love was more than an emotion, that love requires of us more than we can imagine, that to offer love was to offer our deepest and most treasured self to be trampled and stomped, it was to be vulnerable, but very, very real.
Remember that it was wonderfully illustrated in a book for children called the Velveteen Rabbit, when the skin horse told the velveteen rabbit that one becomes real through love and when one becomes real then most of the hair is worn off and stuffing is falling out.
Lewis captures this notion of love when he writes that love opens us up vulnerably and leaves us exposed to the harsh and broken realities of life—and he then gives us an insight into the alternative to the love that leaves us vulnerable and hurt by saying that the only place we’re safe from such truth in love, is hell.
© 2015 Stephen Carl