C. S. Lewis and Saint Augustine: Distinctness in Heaven

In what seems to be turning into a series of posts on C. S. Lewis, I would like to supplement yesterday’s post on Lewis’ speculation about the nature of the resurrection body, by adding some further insight of his regarding the heavenly life. In this passage, taken from The Problem of Pain, Lewis discusses the perpetuation of the equal-yet-different pattern of life within the Body of Christ laid out by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 (the earthly dimension of which he gives an excellent analysis of in the essay Membership). He considers what it may mean for us to have different roles in heaven as well as here on earth, and how this is actually necessary for the caritas which has enabled us to dwell in the heavenly places to work itself out in our life there.

His principle point here is that distinctness was one of the essential elements in God’s creation of the world, and is a pre-requirement for being able to love at all (even within the Blessed Holy Trinity); so that in heaven we will rejoice in our differences, as they will enable us to give away our love to others in an ever-increasing range of possibilities:

Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints. If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others – fresh and ever fresh news of the “My God” whom each finds in Him whom all praise as “Our God”…

…For union exists only between distincts; and, perhaps, from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is a creed not so much false as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness. Thus He also cast His bread upon the waters. Even within the creation we might say that inanimate matter, which has no will, is one with God in a sense in which men are not. But it is not God’s purpose that we should go back into that old identity (as, perhaps, some Pagan mystics would have us do) but that we should go on to the maximum distinctness there to be reunited with Him in a higher fashion. Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that the Word should be God, it must also be with God. The Father eternally begets the Son and the Holy Ghost proceeds: deity introduces distinction within itself so that the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity or self identity.

But the eternal distinctness of each soul – the secret which makes of the union between each soul and God a species in itself – will never abrogate the law that forbids ownership in heaven. As to its fellow-creatures, each soul, we suppose, will be eternally engaged in giving away to all the rest that which it receives…

…From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever. This is not a heavenly law which we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law which we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor “ordinary life”, but simply and solely Hell…

…The golden apple of selfhood, thrown among the false gods, became an apple of discord because they scrambled for it. They did no know the first rule of the holy game, which is that every player must by all means touch the ball and then immediately pass it on. To be found with it in your hands is a fault: to cling to it, death. But when it flies to and fro among the players too swift for eye to follow, and the great master Himself leads the revelry, giving Himself eternally to His creatures in the generation, and back to Himself in the sacrifice, of the Word, then indeed the eternal dance “ makes heaven drowsy with the harmony”

from The Problem of Pain (1980), pp.138-141, Fount Paperbacks.

            This principle of difference or distinctness in heaven was also considered by Saint Augustine, and is worth mentioning here, as it not only complements Lewis’ image of heaven, but also acts as a corrective to those who insist on seeing the Church as essentially a democratic institution. The Church of England, for example (and most other Anglican churches) decides on doctrinal changes by majority vote in a general synod – thus, the spirit of the age is given direct influence on the ‘development’ of their doctrine (particularly as the vote is almost always swung by lobby groups pushing for a certain direction for the church).

Anyway, Augustine’s words are a reminder that the Church is essentially a monarchy, with Christ as King, and His Body is a meritocracy of sorts, but that each will receive merit due to the quality of their love whilst on earth, and this will not be a cause for conflict, but rather will be an opportunity for the saints to glory in the blessings that their neighbour has received:

But who can conceive, not to say describe, what degrees of honour and glory shall be awarded to the various degrees of merit? Yet it cannot be doubted that there shall be degrees. And in that blessed city there shall be this great blessing, that no inferior shall envy any superior, as now the archangels are not envied by the angels, because no one will wish to be what he has not received, though bound in strictest concord with him who has received; as in the body the finger does not seek to be the eye, though both members are harmoniously included in the complete structure of the body. And thus, along with his gift, greater or less, each shall receive this further gift of contentment to desire no more than he has.

from The City of God, Book XXII, Section 30 (2000), p. 865, Modern Library Paperback.

            Taken together, these two views paint a glorious and majestic picture of heaven, with all the redeemed engaged in a constant rejoicing in one another, so that divine charity, poured into the soul of each, will truly be the life-blood of existence in the hereafter. One last final point – it is of the utmost importance to remember that, unlike here on earth, where there are degrees of honour and glory according to earthly standards, and justice does not always prevail, in heaven merit will be allocated according to how much and how well each one has loved, so that we will finally see the reality of Our Lord’s words, that ‘everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’  

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One thought on “C. S. Lewis and Saint Augustine: Distinctness in Heaven

  1. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on Knowing | Journey Towards Easter

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