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The Great Divorce

| 9.10.02
The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis

Lately, books have evoked memories of movies I've seen. C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce reminds me of the movie What Dreams May Come. Both deal with visions of the afterlife, but while What Dreams May Come is a post-modern vision of heaven and hell --where our bliss or torment is entirely of our own creating-- The Great Divorce maintains that the Kingdom of Heaven is the Platonic Ideal (or Form) of Absolute Reality. That makes it all the more surprising when many of Lewis' characters don't have the spiritual wherewithal to live in that Reality, and choose to live in subjective hells very similar to the ones depicted in What Dreams May Come.

In the preface (page x, to be exact) Lewis warns against the arousal of "factual curiosity about the details of the after-world." Such equivocation is startling from the man who tirelessly (and tiresomely) insisted in Mere Christianity that we must choose between liar, lunatic or Lord. Instead we get Lewis' dream of the Kingdom --beautifully and pastorally represented as the dawning of a new day where only the pure in heart can gaze upon the Son/Sun and live. As in the Narnia series and the Space Trilogy, Lewis is at his best when he's imagining evocative new worlds.

Evangelicals love Mere Christianity for its proud trumpeting of certainty, but The Great Divorce is literature for those who acknowledge increased levels of ambiguity, mystery, and uncertainty when it comes to things theological. Often it seems that Lewis skates on the edge of orthodoxy, but never sails over the edge by hedging with paradoxes --for Lewis the Kingdom is a Platonic form, rendered paradoxically and shrouded in mystery. For instance, Lewis comes very close to saying that Heaven and Hell are states of mind, but one of his characters crisply corrects this contention, saying that Hell is a state of mind, but Heaven is Ultimate Reality. On the issue of free will versus predestination --the biggest paradox of all-- Lewis upholds both by saying that what looks like predestination from a cosmic point of view is actually free will from a human point of view. Lewis' version of hell seems more like the dusky, murky mists of Old Testament sheol than the New Testament fires Jerry Falwell likes to emphasize. Lewis circumvents the problem of evil's existence with the classic argument of making it a privation of the good --for Lewis hell is only a crack in the earth of heaven. In a surprisingly post-modern take, spending an eternity in hell is merely the lack of a broad enough "heavenly" perspective.

Everyone has a chance to move on up to heaven, but many prefer to stay wallowed in their own issues. The bulk of the book is devoted to the stories of different "ghosts" who, upon being extended the chance to enter Heaven, either refuse outright or refuse to enter on anything other than their own terms. Since for Lewis it impossible to enter the Kingdom without orienting oneself to the Absolute Reality, no one is denied entrance, but all in hell choose to be there. The "ghosts" represent types of moral lapse: pride in chapter four (the ghost who believes he's earned salvation on his own merits), apostasy in chapter 5 (which for Lewis is epitomized by the liberal theology of the Episcopal Church), apathy in chapter 7 (coupled with cynicism), self-preoccupation in chapter 8 (the embarrassed/ashamed woman), obsession ("mother love" gone awry) and lust in chapter 11, and finally --the greatest sin of all-- holding the joy of another hostage to your own misery (epitomized by a man who could not appreciate his wife) in chapter 12.

Of the moral sketches that make up the meat of the story, the three that moved me the most were, not surprisingly, issues in which I could see myself and my own struggle. In two of these cases (for me, lust and not appreciating my wife enough) I felt that Lewis' insights were jarringly accurate. However, for the third issue of apostasy epitomized by liberal theology I think Lewis thoroughly misses the mark in an attempt to score some easy points. If it is really true that folks see least clearly and strike most fervently against those in whom they see their own undesirable traits mirrored, I can't help but wonder what this says about Lewis.

First, a quibble over terminology. An apostate is one who repudiates the faith --something Lewis' liberal theologian ghost does not do. Even if we grant Lewis' version of what the faith actually is, his liberal ghost would not be an apostate, but merely a heretic, which is one who claims to hold onto the faith while simultaneously believing things contrary to it. I used to listen to a pastor who commonly referred to the Episcopal Church (and by extension all mainline denominations) as "the apostate church." Now I can see that it was clearly a reference to "the Episcopal ghost" in The Great Divorce --inaccurate as the apostate label in this instance may be.

Secondly, Lewis paints the Episcopal ghost as a liberal whose liberal views serve only to self-aggrandize. Even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, holding onto liberal views are more important than the truth. As one with liberal leanings myself, I can personally attest that this is a straw man. If I could be shown that the universe is really as Lewis says it is in The Great Divorce, I'd gladly amend my views to match. I'm on a search for truth, and to the extent that my views are liberal or unorthodox only reflects that I am willing to be open to the direction the Spirit blows me. Any other view makes an idol out of orthodoxy that's put in place of the living God.

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060652950; (February 5, 2001) Originally published in 1946.

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