Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight.

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more.

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

~C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Am I Doing Here?--An Integrative Essay

Sarah Nikkel
DCM—C.S. Lewis
Professors Paulo and Adriana Ribeiro
January 25, 2011

Final Integrative Essay

“What are you doing here?”
When professor Adriana Ribeiro posed this question to my class, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  What exactly did she mean?  I was sitting in her classroom because I needed to attend in order to learn and not fall behind.  I had chosen the C.S. Lewis section of Developing a Christian Mind because I was interested in reading more of Lewis’s writing and discovering more about his life.  My reasons for attending Calvin College were different still.  I quickly realized, however, that she wasn’t looking for any of these answers.  What she meant was, “What are you doing to serve the Lord, right here, right now?  How are you living your life to bring Him glory?”  The focus was not on me and my surroundings, but on my actions.  In other words, what was I doing to live out my Christian vocation?  Vocation—a calling to live in a certain way, towards a specific goal—is a central theme both in C.S. Lewis’s work and in Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s book Engaging God’s World, and though their emphases are different, both agree that the essence of our vocation is to strive passionately for God’s kingdom of shalom.  In Plantinga, vocation is presented as our response to the drama of creation, fall, and redemption.  Lewis both expands and narrows this view; his concept of vocation as the unflagging pursuit of Truth applies to all human beings by dint of our common nature as creatures and image bearers of God, but perhaps most clearly to college students.
It is no coincidence that Plantinga chooses to end his book with a chapter on vocation, or that he opens it with one on longing.  Longing is the foundation of hope, the seed from which it springs.  And hope, in turn, is an essential part of vocation.  All human beings at some point in their lives, though especially in youth, experience a sense of longing desperately for something they cannot have.  This longing can be clearly defined or simply a vague, overwhelming rush of “hopeless joy” (Plantinga 3).  Plantinga, paraphrasing Lewis, describes this longing as “seeking union with something from which we are separated” (Plantinga 4).  This could be a fond a fond memory which we wish we could revisit, a favorite place, a moving piece of music, or an absent loved one.  No matter what the case, however, such longings are always unfulfillable.  We cannot relive the past, and even listening to a beautiful passage over and over again or spending time with a close friend will not completely satisfy our longing for them.  As Lewis says in his essay The Weight of Glory, “we discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure.  We cannot mingle with the splendors we see” (“The Weight of Glory” 8).  Even sexual union with another person falls short of what we are seeking.  As Christians, however, we have reason to believe that this won’t always be the case.  “Some day, God willing, we shall get in” (8).  This is where hope comes in.  It is impossible to hope for something without also longing for it, and without hope, longing is bitter and futile.  But what exactly are we hoping for?  Our longings for oneness with the beauty of nature or the past which we often dismiss as “nostalgia” or “romanticism” (3) are, at their heart, longings for shalom—the state of perfectly right relationship with God, others, nature, and ourselves that we look forward to enjoying in the new creation.  Deep down, we are longing for union with God.  And this longing exists not by random chance, but because that is the purpose we were created for.  Ultimately, our longing points to our vocation.
Plantinga defines vocation in terms of passion.  A person may believe in the existence of God, and may even believe that Christ died and rose again for his or her salvation and still not be living out his or her calling.  This is because vocation deals not with beliefs, but with actions.  It asks, as my professor did, what a person is doing to glorify God.  A person who merely believes the gospel is a citizen of the Kingdom, but someone who truly lives for Christ, who “strives first for the kingdom,” is a “prime citizen,” a person with a calling (Plantinga 110).  When people hear the word “calling” they usually think of someone feeling led or being especially suited to a particular career.  For example, a skilled and compassionate doctor or nurse who is completely in love with his or her job might say he or she felt “called” to the medical profession.  And one’s profession—both the choice of a field and the skill and energy one brings to one’s work—is certainly a large part of vocation.  It is important to use our God-given talents, resources, and opportunities to serve “where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Plantinga 118).  But it is still only a part.  There are many other ways in which we can live as prime citizens—for example, by getting involved in a church community and worshipping regularly, by praying and delving into scripture, by serving others, and even by being a good citizen.  God created the whole universe and everything in it, and, thus, is Lord over each and every area and aspect of our lives.  This has a couple of implications for our vocation.  First, it means that we can serve God in everything we do, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and that no job or activity is more “Christian” than another in any sense except in how it glorifies God.  It is no more “Christian” to preach than to sweep a floor, or run a business, or to spend an afternoon in the library researching or helping a friend with his homework.  All of these things can be done in a Christian manner, and all can be twisted to self-serving or sinful ends.  Second, it means that we cannot ignore any part of the world, including secular culture.  To ignore or avoid “un-Christian” people or places or parts of life out of fear or condescension is itself a sin, a waste of God-given talents and resources.  Christ calls us to action, not simple passive endurance.
Lewis has a slightly different way of looking at vocation.  In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” he responds to those who would put education on hold when faced with the crisis of war by pointing out that “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice,” riddled with calamity and overshadowed by the imminence of heaven and hell (“Learning in War-Time” 1).  Faced with either eternal bliss or horror, it seems ridiculous that anyone would fritter away the precious time allotted to them pouring over books or languishing in classrooms and laboratories.  Even those who don’t believe in a life after death are faced with a daunting problem—human life is so short that even after a lifetime of study a man is still a beginner in his field, no closer to knowing all there is to know than when he began (4).  Yet, some people “want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable” (4).  Indeed, human beings seem to have “an appetite” for “the pursuit of knowledge and beauty,” and, Lewis asserts, “God makes no appetite in vain” (3).  In his essay “Man or Rabbit?” Lewis goes one step farther—not only is the desire to “[want] to know things” and “find out what reality is like” a universal human trait, it is what “distinguishes man from the other animals,” and “when that desire [has been] completely quenched in anyone…[that person] has become something less than human” (“Man or Rabbit?” 1).  Not only is our thirst for knowledge so pressing that we continue to explore, to ask questions and seek answers even in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty and despite our limitations, it is what makes us human, a piece of the image of God reflected in us.  It is evidence of our created nature, and, as such, a part of our vocation.  As human beings as well as Christians we are called to glorify God, and one of the ways in which we can—and must—do so is through learning.
If the pursuit of knowledge is an essential part of vocation, then it would seem that college students are on the right track.  But there is a difference between chasing after some evasive and particularly fascinating piece of truth and being content to sit back and passively accept those bits of information which others feed you.  In “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis makes a distinction between learning and education.  Education is the process by which instructors form our habits and, Lewis believes, our virtues by teaching us what they think we need most to know.  It is something that is done to us.  Learning, on the other hand, is what happens when our own inborn curiosity is given free reign over “the whole country” of knowledge (“Our English Syllabus” 13).  Education is certainly a necessary part of human life; we can’t learn until we have been educated.  College, however, is the time to put education behind us, and begin the pursuit of knowledge on our own terms.  Behind my professor’s question, “What are you doing here?” is another of equal importance: what should I be doing here?  If my vocation is to strive for shalom through the pursuit of truth, what does that look like in a college setting?  “The proper question for a freshman,” Lewis says, “is not ‘What will do me the most good?’ but ‘What do I most want to know?’” (7).  Living for Christ as a college student means setting aside all thoughts of “self-improvement” and focusing on how I can serve others.  It means examining my own unique set of talents, interests, and opportunities, and seeing how I can use them not to make the biggest profit but to create the most justice and compassion.  It means working not to be known by millions of people but to truly know a few.  Not making my mark on history, but making a difference in the lives of those I live and work with.

Works Cited
Plantinga, Cornelius Jr. Engaging God’s World: A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Learning in War-Time.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Man or Rabbit?” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011.
Lewis, C.S. “Our English Syllabus.” http://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro. Paulo Ribeiro. n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On The Problem of Pain, Chapter 6: Human Pain

Lewis begins the sixth chapter of The Problem of Pain by differentiating between two meanings or senses of the word pain.  First, the physical sensation of pain, transmitted by the nervous system, and second, “any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.  These senses are not mutually exclusive; pain in the first sense may be pain in the second sense.  However, not all suffering is physical—there is also emotional and mental anguish.  And Lewis claims that not all physical pain is necessarily disagreeable, though I can’t think of a case in which it isn’t to some degree.  An itch may not be “suffering”, but it certainly isn’t pleasant or enjoyable—hence the urge to scratch.  Even a small, persistent physical pain can wear a person down.
Lewis is most concerned with the second sense of pain—that is, human misery in general.  Why does a wholly-good, wholly-merciful and compassionate God allow human beings to suffer?  This sounds an awful lot like the problem of evil, and the two are actually intertwined—after all, much of what we think of as evil is pain, from war and hunger to murder, betrayal, and social injustice.  But is pain really evil?  Lewis walks a fine line.  While he doesn’t exactly say that God causes human suffering, he certainly believes that God uses suffering for His own ends, and even implies that he goes beyond merely allowing to encouraging.  How this could be without God impairing free will and forfeiting His holiness is difficult to understand.  God, obviously, cannot cause human beings to sin.  Yet, throughout the chapter Lewis describes pain as God’s tool for human salvation, essential in bringing souls back to the point of complete obedience and self-surrender.
Pain, in Lewis’s opinion, serves three purposes.  First, pain is the only method of communication loud and clear enough to penetrate the sound-proof walls of our sinful complacency and contentment.  Sin is rooted so deeply in our thoughts and actions that, often, we don’t even realize that it has taken hold.  We stroll through life unawares, masters of self-deception and intentional ignorance.  Pain, however, is “unmasked,” “unmistakable,” “immediately recognizable evil,” an evil that is “impossible to ignore.”  Think of a man who steals, is caught and sent to prison.  Suddenly, he is suffering.  He is lonely, and everything he has, even his freedom, has been stripped away.  He knows that something is not right, and has reached a crossroads.  Either he can blame the system and fall even deeper into self-pity and hatred, or he can realize that his condition is his own fault, that he is to blame and that repentance is his only recourse.  Without pain, however, the man would never have realized that anything was amiss in his life.  He would never even have had a chance to feel remorse.  Pain, Lewis says, is “God’s megaphone”, “a terrible instrument,” but a necessary one.  For without it, we would never become aware that sin has built up a cocoon of false security around us.  Pain breaks through the illusion, and frees us to turn to God.
Second, by taking away our comfort, pain reveals our need for God.  Lewis here gives the example of people who, seemingly, don’t deserve to suffer.  The criminal in jail should suffer as payment for his crimes; if it brings him to repentance, so much the better.  But what about hardworking, honest people, who haven’t done anything to deserve the bad fortune that befalls them?    In this case, God wrenches away life’s comforts until we have no choice but to acknowledge Him, for “while what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it”.  This may seem unfair at first, but Lewis asserts that any earthly happiness is “false happiness”.  Only obedience to God can give us true joy, and once again, pain is the only path to surrender. 
Finally, the presence of pain is the only way to know that we are truly and fully submitting to God’s will without any thought for ourselves.  If something is pleasurable, even if it is also good we will always do it first because it will benefit us.  God’s will is a secondary consideration, a “mere happy coincidence”.  Complete obedience is following God’s will even when it will do us no good, and even do us harm—perhaps great harm.  Because of this, Lewis cites martyrdom as the epitome of the Christian life, modeled for us by Christ, and visible in all of creation (as part of general revelation).  “We cannot therefore know,” he says, “that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations”.  In short, true obedience must be painful in order for us to recognize it as obedience at all. 
A final, quick note—I was fascinated to see the Euthyphro dilemma (which came up in “The Poison of Subjectivism”) referenced again.  Shockingly, however, Lewis answers the question differently in this book than in the essay I read previously, and answers it in such a way that I can’t agree with him!  (He asserts that God commands things because they are right, and talks about certain things being intrinsically good, and even being good apart from the will of God!)  I couldn’t find out when “The Poison of Subjectivism” was written in order to see which came first.  Apparently it was published in a collection of essays posthumously.  Professors Ribeiro, can you help me answer this pressing question?

Update: Professor Paulo helped me discover that "The Poison of Subjectivism" was written in 1943--3 years after The Problem of Pain.  Clearly, Lewis's thought on this subject changed substantially during that time.  I'm curious to find out more about what happened to change his mind!

On "Vocation"--Chapter 5 of Engaging God's World

So many of the essays we’ve read so far have touched on the idea of vocation—the life that Christians are called to live.  Or, perhaps, even the life that we are called to live as human beings.  (As my philosophy prof was fond of saying, “There is a kind of life that creatures like us are meant to live.”)  Questions such as “What am I doing here?” and “What should I be doing as a college student?” all point back to the central question, “What is God calling me to do and be? ”  All the rest of Plantinga leads up to this.  We are all longing for God’s coming kingdom of shalom—how do we get there?  God created the universe, including human beings—what is our role in it?  We are both fallen redeemed in Christ, simul justus et pecatore—how, then, should we respond?  What comes next?  What does it all mean for me, in terms of my own everyday life?
One of the first things Plantinga mentions in this chapter is passion—passion in our repentance, in our thirst for justice and peace, in our joy at God’s grace and goodness.  First and foremost, God calls us to follow Him, to obey His laws and spread His gospel, to be citizens of His kingdom.  But God doesn’t simply call us to get baptized and go back to our old way of living, or to attend church on Sunday morning and forget about Him the other six days of the week.  He calls us not only to serve Him, but to do it with passion, with our whole soul, mind, and strength.  He wants us to give it everything we’ve got!  Plantinga calls this being a “prime citizen” of the Kingdom, the essence of Christian vocation. 
But one Christian’s prime citizenship will look very different from another’s.  To serve God passionately means something different for each person, because everyone has a different mix of resources, talents, opportunities, and interests.  Furthermore, God is the source of these gifts—of all of them, the painful and the wonderful, the tedious and frightening and seemingly small—and His glory is their goal.  As Abraham Kuyper said, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’”  This means that our vocation is much more than just finding a “Christian” job.  No job, not ministry or missions or working for a Christian non-profit, is more “Christian” than another.  After all, the world needs farmers and factory workers as well as pastors.  God wants us all to serve Him, but not everyone is cut out for work in a church, or spreading the good news overseas.  That God is Lord of every square inch of the universe also means that vocation is how we live our whole lives, not just how we perform our work.  We each fill many roles—student or teacher, employee or boss, husband, wife, child, parent, mentor, friend—the list could go on and on.  A lawyer who advocates on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned by day but is rude or hostile to her family at night isn’t giving her all to God.   How we earn a living may be an important part of our vocation, but it is still only a part, and not even necessarily a very big part of it.
For example, I’m currently a freshman at Calvin College, an English for Secondary Education major, and serving God by studying hard, being inquisitive, and exploring my chosen field is a large part of my vocation.  But I’m also treasurer of a student club, a member of two online writing communities, a martial artist, musician, floormate, roommate, sibling, and friend.  These are all part of my vocation too.  I serve God when I write a good essay for a class as well as when I write a good short story for fun, when I stay up till all hours discussing philosophy and theology with my friends or spend all afternoon in the gym doing wushu forms.  I even serve God by going to bed on time, taking short showers, and observing quiet hours in my dorm room!  Wherever there is passion, true humility, and a will to serve others, and, by doing so, glorify God, I am fulfilling my vocation.  Where any of these is lacking, I fall short.
There are two more implications of God’s Lordship over the entire universe.  First, the work of all people—whether Christians or not—belongs to God.  God uses even those who disbelieve in Him or have never heard of Him for His purposes.  This goes back to the idea of common grace.  Apart from God’s grace, none of us can do good; but that grace falls on all people, believers and non-believers alike.  Secondly, God is God of movies and heavy metal music as well as opera and Bach, of Shakespeare as well as modern poetry, of Chinese and Latin, of sermons and chats at the campus coffee shop.  If our vocation is to serve God passionately in all areas of our life, then this necessarily includes engagement with culture.  Human culture is a part of God’s creation, fallen like the rest, but also, like the rest, essentially and originally good.  A Christian who only shops at Christian stores, reads Christian books, listens to Christian music, and consorts with other, like-minded people is no Christian at all.  “God’s plan,” says Plantinga, “is to gather up all things in Christ.”  But how can we gather up popular fiction for Christ, if we pretend it doesn’t exist?  How can we gather up television, if we refuse to watch?  Most importantly, how can we gather up non-believers if we turn our backs on them?  “How ungrateful it would be,” he laments, “to receive the bread of life and then refuse to share it with others.”  Engaging with the culture around us allows us not only to work towards redeeming that culture but also the people of that culture.  Evangelizing from behind an impenetrable wall of Christian friends, Christian perspectives, and Christian experiences is futile--in essence, cowardice.  Being aware of temptation and avoiding it is good, but avoiding the world is a sin in itself, a waste of God-given time and talent.  Fear of the world (for that is exactly what such a tendancy is at heart) is a lack of faith in the strength and provision of Christ.  True Christianity exists not to build walls, but to break them all down.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On "Man or Rabbit?"

Read the essay: Man or Rabbit?
In this short but very insightful essay Lewis responds to the question, “Can you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?”  Obviously, the answer is yes—we can all think of “good” people who aren’t Christians, from celebrities who donate huge sums to charities, to atheists who strive for social justice, to devout practitioners of other religions—Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc.  But Lewis immediately takes issue with those who would ask such a question.  What such a person is really concerned with is not finding out if Christianity is true or not, but in finding out what use it is to him or her.  He or she is interested in Christianity only insofar as it will help to make him or her a “better” or “more moral” person.  The attention is all on one’s self.  If Christianity is true, Lewis asserts, then “every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all,” and if Christianity is false “no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be”.  The real question is not whether we can live good lives apart from Christianity, but whether we should believe it or not.  For if Christianity is true and we continue to live apart from it, even if we try to live “good” and “moral” lives we are “working in the dark”, acting “in a way which simply doesn’t fit the real universe” and risking “infinite harm” to our fellow creatures. 

The person who asks “Can I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” is in a completely different set of people from those who have either never heard of Christ (such as Socrates) or those who have heard of Christ, considered his claims, and ultimately rejected them as being false.  In the first case, the truth seeker is simply in “honest ignorance”; he or she is not a Christian at least in large part because he or she has never been given a chance to become one.  Who knows what the ancient Greek philosophers would have thought about the Gospel?  In either case, they can’t be blamed for their un-Christian beliefs.  Those who reject Christ, Lewis asserts, are also innocent, in a state of “honest error”.  For some reason, they simply cannot accept the truth of Christianity—but they are seeking after truth nonetheless.  In the end, Lewis claims, “honest rejection of Christ, however mistaken, will be forgiven and healed”—startling, though he hints at similar things in the end of The Last Battle and in The Great Divorce.  It is the person who has heard of Christ but chooses to ignore him, who refuses to answer the door that the Truth is knocking on because he is afraid to face the facts, afraid of having to give his life and his all, that will not be forgiven.  Such a person is lukewarm, cowardly, lazy, dishonest—pursuing mere animal happiness rather than the truth for which God gave human beings an insatiable thirst.  If I’m not mistaken, Lewis says somewhere that the opposite of love is not hatred but apathy.  Those who reject Christianity but strive for truth and justice are, in the end, working to bring God’s kingdom.  Those who simply don’t care are the true evildoers, wholly self-absorbed and, as the title of the essay implies, more rabbits than men.   
Yes, Christianity will help you, will do you good—but it will help in a way that hurts terribly before it heals, do real good—and what is ultimately for our good, that is, loving others, is usually “bad” for us in the short term.  Christianity is suffering, hard work, heartbreak and loss.  And it is much more than simple morality.  This goes back to Plantinga—the law is not the goal of the Christian life, but the foundation and framework within which it is to be lived, like a trellis that anchors a flowering vine.  In “the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and calls us to be gods…morality will be swallowed up.  We are to be remade.”  The rabbit in us—our fear and laziness, weakness, anxiety, and slavery—will be stripped away to reveal what we really are: “a real Man, an ageless god,  a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On "The Inner Ring"

Read the essay: The Inner Ring

You know the feeling—at some point in your life, you walked through hallways and sat in classes with “those” kids.  The popular ones, who gossiped and dated each other, set the trends and made everyone else sigh with envy.  They wore all the right clothes, listened to all the right music, talked about all the right things, were light, funny, smooth, and scornful.  And oh, you wished that you could be a part of their circle, to have the privilege of laughing with them with your back to the rest of the world.  You would have done anything for it—and perhaps you got the chance, and made it in, or perhaps (more likely) you never did.  
This phenomena is what Lewis calls the “inner ring”—a “second”, “unwritten” hierarchy within another organization which nearly everyone desires to be a part of but which few belong to.  Though rarely talked about, its presence is always felt.  No one is officially admitted or expelled, and it’s membership is often difficult to pin down.  However, between those who are clearly in and those who are clearly out an invisible line exists which produces in the first group smug superiority and in the second consuming desire and terror—desire for acceptance and terror at the thought of rejection.  In fact, these feelings are so powerful, Lewis asserts, that the inner ring is “one of the most dominant elements” weighing on the minds of people of all ages and walks of life.  It exists, not only in middle and high schools, but in colleges, in the workplace, in church and government and even in society at large.  It is almost omnipresent, an inescapable feature of human life. 
If the inner ring is unavoidable, however, is it really evil?  After all, it can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes—from whole social classes of people who talk and eat and dress a certain way, to a handful of intellectuals or a few officials with a philosophy or a vision all their own.  Lewis argues that the presence of inner rings is not bad in and of itself—in fact, it can even be a good, healthy thing!  It’s natural that people with similar taste and ideas should become friends, and even base their interactions on their shared interests and work.  However, Lewis also draws a line between mere friendships and “inner rings”.  Though a group of close friends may resemble an inner ring, their “secrecy is accidental, and [their] exclusiveness a by-product…no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric”.  A true inner ring “exists for exclusion”.  It thrives on the longing and misery of outsiders; and furthermore even insiders are never satisfied, because there is always some other ring—one inside the first, or tangent to it—that he or she is still outside of.  Friendships generate genuine pleasure.  A ring, however, loses its appeal as soon as one enters it.  It’s only charm is its unavailability—it is “a pleasure that cannot last”.  And, as Lewis remarks, there is no motivation better than the desire to be accepted into the inner ring for “making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
How are we to navigate our lives, when, as Lewis warns, the ever-present “quest for the Inner Ring will break [our] hearts unless [we] break it”?  We will always be surrounded by inner rings.  However, if we make our chief aim honest work, rather than acceptance by the local elite, we will be good at what we do.  We will enjoy deep, lasting friendships, and, though we may not have the most influence or receive the most attention, we will be the most important, the solid foundation on which our craft, or society, or organization is built.  We will matter, in a much truer sense than members of the inner ring, be respected by those who’s respect is worth having.  And, in the end, we will be happier and more easily content with our lot in life. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On The Four Loves--"Eros"

First, to define Eros—Eros is love between the sexes, which includes sexual attraction but is not merely sex.  It is what people mean when they talk about “being in love” with someone.  Sex itself, which Lewis calls Venus, is only a part of it, and not even the greatest part.  Venus can exist outside of Eros, and Eros can exist, and often does exist, without any thought of sex or sexual interaction. 
Furthermore, the presence or absence of Eros doesn’t make an action morally right or wrong.  For example, in ages past many people married and had children who were not in love, but simply obeying the wishes of their parents and fulfilling their duty towards society and each other, and, as Lewis says, “they did right.”  Just because Eros was not present doesn’t make the sexual act wrong.  In the same way, a man who commits adultery because he is in love with a woman who is another man’s wife does wrong even though his actions grow out of Eros.  This ties back to “We Have No Right to Happiness”—even though Eros speaks with an almost divine voice and makes lofty promises and terrible threats, it cannot justify otherwise immoral acts—dishonesty, faithlessness, the breaking of promises and the betrayal of loved ones.
At its beginning, Eros is rarely concerned with sex.  It begins most often with a preoccupation with another person, all his or her likes and dislikes, mannerisms and habits, way of speaking and moving and laughing.  Sex doesn’t even enter into the lover’s mind.  To a man just starting to fall in love, the fact that his beloved is a woman, and even a sexually attractive woman, is beside the point.  He is only concerned with the fact that she is herself.  Eventually, sexual desire becomes a part of Eros, but it does so as “[an institution] of a conquered country.”  Eros “reorganizes” sex, and so sex inside of Eros is quite different from sex outside of it.  Lewis points out that many medieval moralists and theologians tended to think that the more Eros detached itself from Venus, the purer it would be; sex was a pollutant, a temptation to sensual gratification and lust.  As most of these men were celibates, however, Lewis argues that they could not have known how Eros transforms sexual desire, “how, far from aggravating, he [Eros] reduces the nagging and addictive character of mere appetite…[making] abstinence easier.”

<In progress>

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On "Redemption"--Chapter 4 of Engaging God's World

Once again, Plantinga begins his chapter—this time on redemption—in an unusual place: with God’s first act of mercy towards humanity after the Fall.  After He convinced an ashamed Adam and Eve to confess their sin, God cursed creation and especially the man and woman, describing the hardships they would face because of their disobedience.  But He also made them clothing to wear, garments of animal skin much sturdier than flimsy fig leaves.  A little later in the story He makes a covenant with Abraham that He knows humankind will be unable to keep, promising salvation.  From the beginning, God’s wrath is tempered with mercy.  Rather than leave humanity exposed and naked before the sin and evil we have let into the world, God shelters us, guides us, and plans to suffer for us.
Clearly, Christ’s ministry, sacrificial death, and resurrection are the heart, the climax, and the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem creation, including His Church.  But there is much, much more to it than just the gospel story.  What comes before (from clothing in the garden, to the covenant with Israel and Old Testament law) and what comes after are also critical to the Christian faith and life.
First, how do we “get in on salvation”?  Plantinga describes Christ as the perfect example of a repentant sinner.  He was baptized, endured scorn and mockery, and ultimately was put to death.  Christ was also the perfect human being, a sinless, humble servant, the exact image of God the Father.  We receive salvation by imitating Christ—first by repenting of our sin, and then by being baptized.  Baptism does not dispense grace—God justifies us invisibly, in His own time and by His own methods.  But it mirrors what God is doing “behind the scenes,” so to speak, by modeling Christ’s death and resurrection.  We enter the water dead in sin; we emerge new creations, alive in Christ, and members of His body, the church.
But what happens then?  What does the Christian life look like after justification—God’s act of grace whereby all our sins past, present, and future are forgiven, and Christ’s righteousness is attributed to us even though we are still sinners?  Plantinga speaks of a “double grace”; the first grace is justification, and the second is sanctification, a process that extends throughout this life and into the next.  Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit which, day by day, transforms our lives into the image of Christ.  It enables us to inch closer and closer to the perfect humility, patience, compassion, kindness, and self-giving love that Jesus Christ demonstrated to us.  Continuing to grow in our salvation, oddly enough, is also imitation of the Savior.
I’ve deliberately left until now a topic that Plantinga mentions earlier in his chapter—the ten commandments.  According to Plantinga, it is not until we’ve been led out of slavery to sin that we are given the law, and the law, surprisingly, makes us not slaves but free men and women.  Grace liberates us so that we can live within the bounds of God’s will for us.  Now, Plantinga says that the law restrains us so that we can flourish, but I would say instead that the law constrains us.  At moot, two of the mentors led a poetry workshop.  In it, they discussed how the strict rules of many poetry forms, rather than squelching the poet’s creativity by forcing it into an unnatural shape, actually free the poet to create even more beautiful poetry.  The rules provide a framework and foundation for the poem.  They constrain, rather than restrain.  The same is true of God’s law.  Just as a well-written sonnet is more beautiful because it has a certain number of lines, a specific rhyme scheme, a precise meter, so a life is more beautiful when lived according to certain standards—God’s standards.