C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things

As a sort of addendum to my last post, in which I explored C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on the potency of scriptural imagery, and the role symbol and metaphor play in our knowing the world more generally, I would like today to focus on another essay of his, which deals with what he referred to as ‘transposition’. This term, usually used to refer to the writing of a piece of music in a different key to the original, is used by Lewis to describe any transference between different modes of experience, and ultimately, between earthly experiences or images, and heavenly ones, and it can shed a lot of light on what he has to say about scriptural imagery and the role of symbol, and why it is that Scripture uses such ‘earthy’ imagery to communicate divine truths.

In his essay (which is entitled Transposition), Lewis begins by examining the strange fact that the same physical sensations can accompany several qualitatively different types of experience – for example, that being in love can produce sensations that we also experience during rough sea travel, and that can also be induced by an intense aesthetic experience (Lewis uses as an example Samuel Pepys’ account of seeing Dekker and Massinger’s play The Virgin Martyr, which Pepys noted made him feel nauseous, in a way indistinguishable from how he felt when first in love with his wife, and yet that he also wanted to experience this nausea again, as he found it ‘ravishing’).

Some others will have experienced a flutter in the diaphragm, or perhaps mild vertigo, but the point is that the same physical sensation accompanies very different experiences – some welcome, others not. Lewis infers from this that this is because our emotional life is ‘higher’ than our physical life, in the sense that it is more varied and more subtle, and it is because our physical faculties are less rich and complex that the same sensations are employed by the body to attend and interpret different experiences. The correspondence between the emotional and the physical is not a one-to-one relationship, but instead like translating a language with a large number of vowel sounds into one with a smaller set of vowel characters.

Lewis’ contention is that this ‘transposition’ from richer to poorer modes is, like our interpretation of experience in metaphor and symbol, a common facet of our experience, and that this explains why religious experiences (e.g.; mysticism) and revelatory language (e.g.; scriptural imagery) are also so often described in familiar, even commonplace terms. The mystic or the inspired writer does so because they are transposing a richer, subtler, more varied life into a vocabulary that is constrained by the resources available to it. Lewis provides an analogy of this by examining our depiction of three-dimensional life in two-dimensional sketches, concluding that:

…we understand pictures only because we know and inhabit the three-dimensional world. If we can imagine a creature who perceived only two dimensions and yet could somehow be aware of the lines as he crawled over them on the paper, we shall easily see how impossible it would be for him to understand…

…And soon, I think, he would say, “You keep on telling me of this other world and its unimaginable shapes which you call solid. But isn’t it very suspicious that all the shapes which you offer me as images or reflections of the solid ones turn out on inspection to be simply the old two-dimensional shapes of my own world as I have always known it? Is it not obvious that your vaunted other world, so far from being the archetype, is a dream which borrows all its elements from this one?

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.271-272, Harper Collins.

            Thus, the complaint of the non-believing sceptic that all religious experience is to be discounted because it is described in earthly terms and so must surely be ‘just’ our projection of wishful thinking can be seen in a new light – the reason religious experiences and imagery (harps, gold, choirs, intensification of familiar experiences) are described in such terms is because this is the only means we have to describe anything, and we must make do with the tools at our disposal. It is not a surprise that humans do not know what angels know, and that we must describe even the most exalted of mystical experience in earthly terms:

Our problem was that in what claims to be our spiritual life all the elements of our natural life recur: and what is worse, it looks at first glance as if no other elements were present. We know see that if the spiritual is richer than the natural (as no one who believes in its existence would deny) then this is exactly what we should expect. And the sceptic’s conclusion that the so-called spiritual is really derived from the natural, that it is a mirage or projection or imaginary extension of the natural, is also exactly what we should expect; for, as we have seen, this is the mistake which an observer who knew only the lower medium would be bound to make in every case of Transposition.

ibid, p.273.

            What we do know, and what the non-believer cannot know however, is the nature of the experience itself – in this sense, it is a closed circle, and one must enter in before valid commentary can be provided. An atheist reading Saint Hildegard of Bingen or Saint Catherine of Siena, is bound to read the imagery they employ and the experiences they describe as a religious pathology, and therefore see their use of earthly images as ‘proof’ that their experiences are only projections, with no transcendent value. Similarly, the same person reading the Bible may well scoff at the plethora of mundane imagery as an indictment of how there can’t be anything more to it. But, as Lewis has pointed out in his essay, this could not be any other way, and the only way the atheist/agnostic will be able to see further, is to move past their unbelief.

So, if Lewis is correct in his assessment (and I think he makes a very good case for transposition being a core element in the human experience), then we have further good reason to trust the canonical imagery we receive in Scripture, and the writings of the saints, which also employ many such earthly depictions to describe their experiences. Moreover, we should not be worried if we, when trying to describe any experiences we may have had that transcend everyday life, can only do so in everyday terms. This does not discount or disprove the experience, but only confirm the limitations of our language and the imaginative resources available to us.

There will always be those who insist that religious experience is ‘just’ wishful thinking, and see descriptions of it as proof that this is so, and even those who see love as ‘just’ chemical processes, or thought as ‘just’ the firing of neurons, no matter how much this conflicts with their emotional or rational life. But for most of us, we realise that these higher experiences cannot be adequately described, and not because they are false, but because they burst the banks of our ability to describe. Lewis concludes his essay with some reflections on what all this might mean for life in the hereafter – that if our emotional life can sometimes be hard to accurately express, then how much more will the heavenly realms exceed our expectations of them:

Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun…

…It is the present life which is the diminution, the symbol, the etiolated, the (as it were) “vegetarian” substitute. If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom, that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being”. They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.

ibid, p.276.

            This idea – that our life here is, though perfectly good and real, but a shadow of the next life, and that when in Heaven we will see our life here on earth (which we see now as so solid and tangible) as the paper sketch to the heavenly three-dimensional reality – is a hallmark of much of Lewis’ work, and given its fullest outworking in The Great Divorce. It is an excellent lens through which to see much of his work, the natural conclusion to his thinking on transposition of experience, and a very appropriate place to summarise his thoughts here, as, if there exist differences in kind in our mundane life, such as Lewis has described, and this is reflected in our ability to describe spiritual experience, then the Source of those experiences must be far beyond our imagining.

And yet, though far beyond what we can imagine, Heaven must also be continuous with our earthly experiences. Our Lord used earthly images to communicate divine truths to his disciples, and the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to use the imagery available to them to communicate something of the glory of Heaven. The things of the earth are hallowed, and their transcendence in the next life is also a confirmation of them, as all the mystical experiences given to us, and all the images abounding in Scripture, are geared towards preparing us for that life, where we will finally be bathed in the glorious light of the Risen Son, and all the hints and glimpses we have received will be both confirmed and fulfilled.

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One thought on “C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Who Fears Death by Okorafor Nnedi (Five Stars) | As a Matter of Fancy

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