The Lion’s World: Rowan Williams, C. S. Lewis and Pope Francis meet

I have just re-read Rowan William’s The Lion’s World – a highly rewarding and penetrating short book on C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In it, I was struck by two particular passages, that seemed to me to be (tangentially at least) related to my earlier discussions about the challenges and demands of love. The first such passage was this:

If joy is real and irresistible, if it answers the most serious hunger we have, our need for truth is in fact answered. What we finally see reflected in the face of truth is both the depth of our hunger for joy and the tangle of ingenious strategies for avoiding what we most want, strategies that we devise because we fear the dissolving of our self-possession that joy brings with it…Given our restless insecurity, our immediate desire to be affirmed without question, we devise ways of assuring ourselves. It may be painful to let go of all this, but what is ultimately promised is an experience that is beyond the itch and the scratch: joy.

The Lion’s World (2012), pp.108-109, SPCK.

            Here Williams is referring to Lewis’ recurrent reference to the experience of joy, or sensucht – a feeling of being so overtaken or transported by an indefinable, unnameable desire, that we completely forget our own self. He relates this touchstone concept of Lewis’ to the experiences of some of the characters in the Chronicles, wherein they encounter a reality so consistently truthful and bewilderingly alive (i.e.; Aslan) that they experience an unmasking of sorts – they are forced to confront the layers of self-deception and suppression of truth that they have weaved around themselves throughout the course of their life stories. This painful process is experienced simultaneously with a feeling of overwhelming joy (in Lewis’ sense of the word), insofar as the transporting of one’s true self by this encounter with an embodiment of Truth itself forces us to address the self-assuring fictions we tell ourselves, and so precipitates the need for removing those layers in order to meet Truth more completely, to further this experience of joy. Aslan here is emblematic of the workings of grace, where he is both the cause of this self-encounter and the means by which we remove the layers; we accept the grace freely, and cooperate with it, but could do none of this without it.

The way in which I felt Rowan Williams reflections to touch (however slightly) upon my own with respect to the demands of love, is that in my posts, I do not feel that I emphasised enough the joyful aspect of living in harmony with God’s love. Obviously, the crux of what I was saying was regarding how challenging we find it to do this, so that was inevitably the emphasis. But considering Williams’ work made me think about something else that I also find hard to embrace – namely the consistent testimony, both of Scripture and of those who have embraced it themselves, that when one fully gives oneself over to new life in Christ, trusting in Him completely and striving to do His will, what one experiences really is a sense of joy, and also profound peace. Despite the testimonies to the truth of this, it involves so much risk and so much sacrifice of self-possession and security, that I personally find it very hard to do, and it is another thing that holds me back from loving my neighbour as I should. I only pray, that in time, by the grace of God I will be able to take that risk and receive the joy that is promised.

The second passage from Williams’ book does not really bear any relation to my previous posts, but does follow on from what I have just written above, in the sense that there is so much more to Christianity than is often assumed:

Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard as persuading them that there are things they haven’t heard when they think they have…It is not true that large numbers of people reject Christian faith – if by “reject” we mean that they deliberately consider and then decide against it. They are imperceptibly shunted towards a position where the “default setting” is a conviction that traditional Christianity has nothing much to be said for it.

ibid, p.17.

            This is the central thesis of The Lion’s World – that Lewis, in the Chronicles, was trying to create, for people who think they know what Christianity is all about, a sense of the excitement and freedom (and of course, joy) that comes from faith in Christ. This message, Williams’ suggests, was intended just as much for believers who had gotten used to a repetitive, unchallenging faith, manifested once on Sunday morning and forgotten about the rest of the week, as those who had no faith but had grown up in a culture still saturated with enough remembrance of Christianity that they considered that they knew what it was all about – backward, proscriptive, joyless – and therefore didn’t need to enquire further. This, it seems to me, still applies today – not just to those who think that religion somehow means leaving your brain outside the church door, but to those who see it as something conventional and stale. People do not reject the Church; they reject what they think the Church is, based on inherited assumptions and half-truths.

This image of Christianity though, it has to be said, has some grains of truth in it, and the fault lies with both clergy and laity – the former for too readily appropriating secular ideologies in an attempt to be relevant (and thereby becoming less distinctive and less challenging), and the latter for becoming routine and lukewarm in their faith. Both could also be criticised for a lack of engagement with the surrounding culture – there is some good reason for this, as I do recognise the creeping hostility in the Western world towards Christians, and understand any reluctance to speak out (I myself am terribly guilty of it) – but, as we have seen from Pope Francis’ pontificate so far (see here, here and here), it is possible to be enthusiastic about Christ and the Church without getting bogged down by the issues that separate us from those without. In order to better share the good news with people, I think we first have to be captivated by it ourselves; otherwise all our attempts to talk about it will look forced, and feel like a chore to us. So, to conclude this rather disjointed post, I would say that my main point is that I (and I would suggest the same to others who have experienced the same frustrations as myself) need to take that risk, and open myself up to the Lord. Only then will loving my neighbour become easier; only then will I be filled with the peace and joy of the gospel, and be credible to the world.

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