It is hard, as a modern, to know the right questions to ask, to know when all questions fall silent in the presence of absolute Truth, of Revelation…
In his final book, The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes about the Mediaeval world view: “All the apparent contradictions must be harmonised. A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, and finely ordered, multiplicity.” This apparent rational suicide is tempered with the caveat that this model, to those in the era, was just that—a model. Lewis makes the comment that the Mediaeval person loved to codify, to build, to systematize; thus, it seems logical that the Mediaevals understood the poetic and sign-nature of their world-view, their image. Lewis’ friend, Owen Barfield, in his profound and seminal book, Saving the Appearances, allows the modern reader an experience of this tension between the acknowledgement of the mysterious real and the use of a working image, or model; the one example that found a place-holding in my mind was his description of angels painted in the Mediaeval period as dressed in contemporary clothing, with wings as a symbolic indication of their differences, as if, in our day, we painted angels in prom dresses or business suits—well, how are we to dress angels? They aren’t even dressed as we understand it; so, like the Hindu depictions of blue or many-armed gods, the symbolism, or the poetic, fantastical signs of wings or many arms were pointing to a higher reality, that of other or supernatural. We moderns risk thinking these ancients ‘primitive’ or ‘childish,’ or risk a hyper-focus on a gritty standard of scientific reality, or the ‘objective view from individual eye-holes’ that means we miss the higher Object which the peoples before us seemed to know were beyond our categories, our ability to portray them. Yet, at the same time, for the Mediaevals as for ancient cultures, the effect of the poetic in speech, drama, and the visual arts, was deeply powerful, even magical. Furthermore, the Western (through Ancient Greece and Rome) and Christian worlds—one thinks of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, particularly—understood also that human rationality, the highest human faculty, was in a fundamental relationship with the deeper imagination that “is a fusing, transforming, transcendent faculty that is creative in its power of changing and refining ideas and images.” These civilizations lived in a more healthy tension between the sweeping power of the poet and the inordinate faith in the individual, rational mind.
In other words, I think both Lewis and Barfield posit an essential humble acknowledgement from earlier Western ages like the Mediaeval that our lenses, our imaginum mundorum, are fogged and dusty, and that our languages—poetic, visual, scientific, theological, philosophical—are, via human power alone, too blunt and boulder-like to adequately describe the Truth as God sees it, as God is, and that the Muse is needed to approach Reality. The great Western thinkers knew this sublime and True sight and conversation was given from the time, out of time, when “we will see as we are seen, know as we are known, and not as through a glass darkly.” Lewis writes, “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.”
I also believe the major themes of The Discarded Image and Saving the Appearances are the same, if one looks not just at the work but at the rhetorical situation in which both were written; this has great import to how we understand our present darkness, and also it answers some personal questions I have had for many years about Lewis’ theology.
First, the point I take from both writers: It is not an easy idea to write about in an essay, and even in a book, could I do it justice? It invites, no—requires—a strange variety of others at the table to adequately account for the strange variety of dead-pool imaginum mundorum we now live within: Joseph Pieper, Charles Peirce and his theory of semiotics, the sociologists Jacques Ellul and Charles Taylor, St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Romano Guardini, Charles Darwin, Emmanual Kant, Hegel, John Paul II, St. Augustine, etc.. But nevertheless, let me take a stab at it; perhaps it is a small, humble start to a conversation.
It is the mark of the primitive not to recognize one’s imago mundi or the Model one lives with, as image or model; in the early primitive, the communal image was, simply, reality; later, in Greek thought, attempts were made to discern between human imagination and the Real, between images and Forms. It is also the mark of the primitive not to recognize the inherent tension in us angel-beasts between the ability to discern truth constituting our rational mind (this is a manifestation of the unique, human Imago Dei) and the fact that our finite, fallible, original-sin-clouded minds, the rational and imaginative parts, cannot, alone, adequately explain or encompass Reality or communicate its simultaneous whole-ness and complex particulars. Of course, we can, though, use signs: lower, poorer, alternately too-simplistic and too-complex signs pointing to, as signs always do, Higher Objects. We can, in a sense, grope towards the Whole, towards the Real, towards God; we can know and receive hints of this Whole Real: Gerald Knight, in The Magical World of the Inklings, paraphrases Coleridge’s thoughts on this: “In [imagination’s] Primary mode it allows us to make ordered sense out of a host of sensory perceptions and in its Secondary mode gives expression to works of art or other forms of creative ability, or the appreciation thereof. Nature itself, that provides the sense impressions, Coleridge also divides [into] ’naturing’ or creative nature [and] ‘natured’ or created nature. This is a complete antithesis of the materialist viewpoint that all consciousness evolved from matter. Rather it considers all matter to be projected creations by denizens of a world of archetypal ideas and spiritual wills.” In other words, there is a true order, and purpose, for us to imagine and discern, not just electrons and quarks in a chance dance.
Though we are capable of taking in nature, in its essences, as created, we cannot, should not, assume that we can understand the Whole, the Real, completely on the basis of rational powers in a vacuum; this was the fundamental mistake of the Rationalists like Bacon, the Progressivists, the Cultural Evolutionists. We always require signs, in this life, and they are always copies, images of the mysterious, complex within the Oneness, the wholeness that must be understood first, through both the reason and the imagination, before one can know everything about a particular; one can discern the real question that should be posed to modern culture, a scream in the maelstrom, mostly unheard: “Do you see your model as an imperfect model? Or are you living, Matrix-like, within your own images; are you really now a primitive human who is lost because you have bought the lie to yourself?” As Lewis says in The Discarded Image: “Always, century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of Behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too.”
The life-raft offered is the ability of a human being to recognize that we must deal in terms of the Whole, in images, in partial understanding of how real particulars fit within that great mystery (though pace Hume and Kant, we can and are meant to know truth, and order, and particulars, and wholes and parts, and essences) and as Guardini says, to continue—like Abraham—to be willing to hear the call of God past our suppositions—rationally, logically airtight though they seem—and to be ready to discard images that are shown to be false. Are we spiritually able to pull up stakes, to always question ourselves about the images we live with? Do I exaggerate when I claim that in modern and post-modern life, in a world saturated—no, flooded—with images, we have in many cases returned to the primitive belief that our images are all we can ever know about the Real? This was the anthrax letter given us via the likes of Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Emmanuel Kant; it is no surprise that they are considered the fathers of the modern world.
Thus, the rhetorical situation of Lewis’ and Barfield’s books was among the leavings of Kant, who claimed that all we can know of Reality is, simply, the imaginum mundorum we know within our own minds, an individualistic primitivism, instead of the ancient, communal primitive belief in images. Now, where are we? What is the rhetorical situation now in a world that considers itself post-modern, post-Christian, a secular utopia and dystopia all at once? Do Lewis and Barfield still have something to say, and are there those who have picked up their standard and who continue to ask, to argue, for, simply, sanity?
Again, we live in a period in which Kant’s ‘imaginum mundorum in the mind’ has become a cartoonish reality: we literally, with headphones and supremely portable screens, live quite a lot of our lives in a virtual reality of images; it is as if we are being slowly acclimated to the equation Reality=Image=Unanswerable Skepticism=Total Relativism=Total Dogmatism. Not only that, but our sciences—and like a good classicist and liberal artist, I include here philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural and social sciences—have become mixed like oppositional, complementary colours; there are dogmatic natural sciences and theoretical dogmas: rational contradiction, instead of sane tension, has become accepted; we have lost paradox, itself a sign pointing to a Higher Resolution, and live dogmatically within deep contradiction.
This deep contradiction is only possible if one presupposes deep pluralism as not an image or model, but as Reality itself; in other words, we can only accept these contradictions rationally as true, breaking the law of non-contradiction, if we adore as a first principle the lie that we truly know only the images in our heads. Thus, we have de-ascended, de-generated, de-progressed from those who understood their place in a larger, mysterious universe and believed in both the human ability to know the order of the Real through the givenness of a mind ordered to know that order, and in the fallible, limited nature of that mind in a hierarchical relationship with the Mind that created Order itself. We have decomposed because an order like that of the finely-tuned, exact universe we actually live in requires one who Orders, a Maker; when we believed in his absence, we lost belief in order itself, and rationality cut off from any order other than its own cannot be communicated or trusted.
Lewis expresses this degeneration in The Abolition of Man, and he follows in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others of that time period, who saw, prophetically, this degeneration that was seeded in the conception of the modern era. Lewis speaks provocatively, for example, about the “suppositions” of the natural sciences; we call these suppositions “theories” and in the classical understanding of the sciences, questioning these suppositions as Socrates did, a kind of dialectical practice in terms of evidence and experimentation, was essential to a truth-seeking discipline. A good science is a questionable science ensconced in the real hope that we can find truth, can know reality more and more; this reflects also the classical Greek and Mediaeval humility about the scope of our abilities in the face of a mysterious universe, a deeply complex and yet absolutely ordered universe. Thus, in all the classical sciences, we find mirrored that Mediaeval tension between all that we can ascertain truthfully, permanently, and all that reaches, yet, far beyond us.
Yet modern ‘suppositions’ or ‘theories’ have now become no longer models, but inappropriately, unquestionable dogmas. A perfectly sane questioner can be labeled unassailably insane and run out of ‘reality,’ unable to affect the conversation, silenced, hopelessly marginalized. Theories can be surreptitious results of prior beliefs, not truth-seeking: for example, Lewis writes that dogmatic, pseudo-religious forms of natural and cultural evolution were not a result of “facts” primarily, but were theories born out of a prior belief in progressivism, the belief that in the progression of time, everything must be moving towards a certain natural and cultural perfection; it is the opposite of the Platonic and neo-Platonic conception of supplementation, or degeneration as one moves farther from the Origin (implicitly calling for a return, via reason, to the Origin, or as Plotinus put it, the One). Progressivism is a particularly Christian heresy, in my mind, a hybrid of a Calvinism (a kind of pre-destination and creation of the perfect Christian earthly state, or “city on a hill,” an imbalanced loss of the mystical understanding of St. Augustine on the Kingdom outside of time, not of this world, and the fundamental natural and supernatural realism of St. Thomas Aquinas as found in On Kingship) and Bacon-ism, the belief that the rational mind, the sciences, can and should encompass, fundamentally use, nature, an attitude that presupposes a belief that our human images vis-à-vis nature are in fact, our reality to live within and can be perfected. It also supposes, à la Bacon, a pre-supposition that nature is a closed system, a kind of machine from which God is fundamentally absent. This is a theological and philosophical attitude to all the sciences that smacks of, ends in, Callicles’ and Nietzsche’s will to power, rather than the humble questioning of Socrates or the receptive, humble scientist (a rare bird).
The shift from an understanding about when a scientific or cultural theory is ‘suppositional’ or theoretical to dogmatic theorizing (another post-modern contradiction that abolished man seems happy to live with) is a truly dangerous one, and it leaves us, simply, so locked in our silos that we are no longer able to pose the right questions or look at facts in a true scientific manner; furthermore, we will kill those who do ask those questions. Dr. John West, who wrote The Magician’s Twin, on Lewis’ attitudes to evolution theory, gives this example: In the 80’s, DNA theorists, with a progressivist and strict secular evolutionist imago mundi, assumed that large sections of DNA that seemed ‘useless’ were indeed just that: junk. Thus, the “Junk DNA Theory” was readily accepted because it logically, rationally, upheld the dogmas of present science, in that these were large sections ‘left over’ from multiple chance variations over millennia. However, this theory has been overturned and it seems all that “junk” has deeper, still mysterious purposes that reach beyond our current understanding. We are beginning to be faced with the fact that we find evidence of a complete, ordered system, a fine-tuned being, not a body carrying evidence of chance variation and species-change. The real point Dr. West is making is that the scientists in the 80s did not know how to ask the right questions, the questions born from an acknowledgement of ignorance about a more beautiful, ordered, and mysterious, created reality, questions generated by an acknowledgement of our own temporary models, our signs, which may or may not encompass reality.
The most dangerous and tragic aspect of this is that we no longer understand how to question, and this ability is perhaps the fundamental tool for discovery of the great dance of truth, of love, of reality. We become dogs locked in our own cars, irrationally ready to defend our own silo-rationalities, unaware that we are becoming beasts, full of feeling and commitment, but lacking the necessary, fundamental virtues and tools that mark the truly human:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I see this deep concern and mission—reflected in Yeats’ poem—permeating Lewis’ books, and it births a ‘supposition’ regarding a question I’ve had about him for years.
Lewis has been to me, since childhood, a kind of spiritual father, a mentor, a living sign, as it were, pointing to the Good, True, and Beautiful. He was, at times in my life, the one thread that, in Chesterton’s and Waugh’s turn of phrase, God twitched to pull me back from the abyss. When I became Catholic, and discovered the riches of Tolkien and Waugh and others, I lamented that my main mentor had never come across the Tiber. I wondered why; I kept looking back across the waters towards the empty place on the bank where he once stood, wondering deep inside if he ever found bridges between his hallway of mere Christianity and the Door into a room that opens onto Heaven. Thus, I was always interested in anyone’s theories about it, especially the musings of his Catholic friends and contemporaries. Some thought he could not get past his Ulster Protestant prejudices; some thought in his Englishness, his Christian turn meant a return to the English church. Some thought he wanted to stay beyond, away from, controversies about (to him) the more minor things that divided Christians—that essentially, he wanted to reach the common person, to provide a rational, simple, spiritual life-boat.
All of these reasons seem good and are possibly valid; but they are, using Lewis’ own term, “suppositions” with various facts supporting each. To my knowledge, Lewis never himself absolutely declared anything that would finally silence the debate; he loved Chesterton and Tolkien, and his Protestant friends; he was a man who thought for himself, and he was, truly, as Tolkien portrayed him, Treebeard who says, “I am on nobody’s side because nobody is on my side.” I don’t believe this was prideful, if Lewis felt this way; I theorize that it was a result of his deep commitment, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, to that tension he speaks of, over and over, between the belief that we can know truth and the conviction that we must also know how and when to ask the right questions, to see clearly our own fallibility in regard to our own imago mundi, even amidst those theological differences he saw as ‘not mere Christianity.’
If one is committed, like Socrates, to the questions that climb to an eternal, mysterious, Real, to the Great Dance as portrayed by Lewis in Perelandra; if one is committed to that humble, rational receptivity towards a God that cannot, as Lewis says of Aslan, be tamed and domesticated and fit inside the human mind, then how does one view the Catholic Church from the outside?
The view from the outside of the Church, as I know from my own experience as a convert, is quite different from the one inside. It is a mystery–it is Augustine’s “I believe to understand, I understand to believe” paradox. A lack of faith and understanding can mis-perceive a bunch of mindless sheep saying formulaic prayers and worshiping statues of those who have swallowed the kool-aid successfully in the past. Catholics, and Catholic dogma, can appear to build a prison for the questioner, a place where questions about God and theology are suspect just because they are questions. The outsider asks—because there is perhaps an unquestioned, dogma-like supposition that the Church is, like other churches one knows, a man-made institution—how can these Christians live within this image, and aren’t they lost to the mysterious that cannot be contained in a human institution, in human tradition?
Then there is a liminal moment, God-given, when one sees a glimpse of what an institution that has a Divine Spirit looks like, is like, like Orual in Lewis’ ‘Til We Have Faces sees Psyche’s castle “Tower upon tower, battlements, beauty”—one suddenly sees that almost unbearable tension, that simultaneously humble and overwhelmingly powerful, engulfing and creative love between Christ and His Church, that tension living between the human, fallible images and the Divine Reality; it is a continuing of the Incarnation. It is beyond sight, beyond reason, an image of truth that breaks in from the outside and shatters all others. I saw it simply, in one simple and profound moment, one image: the Eucharist residing in a crypt chapel underneath a Catholic church in Annapolis. I was given, literally on the doorstep, a liminal view—but absolutely clear—of the Hidden Christ in the foundations of the Church. It was the physical presence of Christ I’d looked for all my life, and I knew He was there, the way you simply know another person is in the room. My inner heart saw all at once, and said, in my real, true voice, “If Christ is here then this must be His Church.” It was a sight I did not need to wrestle with, though it produced, of course, a thousand other wrestlings.
Yet, there are Catholics, individuals, who live in fear of questions, thus seeming to confirm the false image of the Church; there are also Catholics who live in awe of God and their own God-given permission to seek, and so can live the balance. These are rarer—but let it never be said that individual Catholics are the sum of the Church. We are more like patients in a hospital.
Perhaps, and this is only a “supposition” open to questions, Lewis was—as I was in many areas—taught in his modern, Protestant academic culture to see only a flat image of the Church, one which pandered its own competing image and was calcified against a culture of valid questioning and development. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but perhaps even Lewis was caught within an image without recognizing it as a false, formative model. It is hard, as a modern, to know the right questions to ask, to know when all questions fall silent in the presence of absolute Truth, of Revelation.
Yet, the Lord asks us to walk this road, abandoned more and more to Divine Providence; he asks us, as Thomas Merton cried out, to supernaturally hope against worldly hope that our simple desire to please Him, to find him, means that He will find us and walk with us and teach us, as Our Lord taught the disciples along the roads and shores of Palestine, and at the foot of the Cross, the right questions, the right prayers, the humility necessary. It is, truly, the reality of His strength made perfect in our weakness, and the weapon-out-of-weakness to defeat the lies.
And as I believe Lewis tried to do as best he could, we must model it in the present maelstrom, especially those of us already within the Church.
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Knight, Gareth. The Magical World of the Inklings. Cheltenham: Skylight Press, 2010.
Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.