Monday, August 31, 2020

Why I am not an Aslanite

It's been a while since we've had a religious post, hasn't it? (Or any post. Jackie does not like me using my laptop and not letting her push buttons.)

I've been reading a review series on C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, which, much as I love them, clearly had a lot of flaws I didn't pick up on the time. Some of which I'm quite happy to continue overlooking, because Lewis didn't like complicated worldbuilding and to be honest, I don't really care where the Beavers got their potatoes during their hundred years of winter. The story still works and the intended audience is kids, who rarely notice that stuff.

But other things actually are problematic, like the Dufflepuds being kept as slaves or Caspian white-savioring all the Narnians even though being the male descendant of conquerors doesn't actually make him more worthy of kingship than any other Son of Adam. (And what is with the necessity of Narnian rulers being human anyway? Doesn't it make sense that Animals would be the best rulers of Animals?)

Most vital, though, is the theology. The Narnia books are heavy allegories, from which I got a lot of my subconscious impressions of Christianity. I certainly read them long before I read any of the Bible, and long into adulthood I've had theological disagreements settled with, "It's just like in Narnia! It makes sense in Narnia, doesn't it?" So I thought I would go over a few of the key theological lessons from Narnia and ask whether they hold water as a comparison with the real world.

Aslan's Death and Resurrection

That's the part that gets cited the most. When I was struggling with the doctrine of the redemption in Christianity, I considered and discarded an awful lot of theological theories. (Did you know there are many, and that more than one is considered acceptable to Catholics?) And the Narnia theory is one of the most cited and believed. Clearly humanity owed some kind of debt because of the evil that we did, and God was obliged to sacrifice a life because of it. Rather than sacrificing ours, he sacrificed his son's, and that's why everything is okay now.

Let's look at how it works in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Edmund betrays his family--or at least, he sides with the Witch over Aslan, and that makes him bad even though he doesn't know who the good guys are when he eats the Witch's enchanted food. He pretends to himself that he doesn't actually mean any harm to his family, but secretly he knows they're going to be hurt. 

Because he's done such a horrible, traitorous thing, the Witch insists that she has the right to Edmund's blood. Aslan backs her up, saying that this is a rule written on the throne of the Emperor across the sea and that Narnia will be destroyed if she doesn't get what she wants.

That's where I get hung up. Why does the Emperor have such a horrible thing written on his throne? Did he write it there? Why? Is the Emperor just really brutal, to have declared the death penalty even for children who do bad things they don't full understand, under the influence of magic? Why did he pick Jadis as his hangwoman, knowing of course that Jadis is super evil? Wouldn't it make sense, if you want to exercise justice and punishment within your realm, to pick someone who's actually on your side to enforce it, so that you can temper the punishments with mercy as applicable?

The Emperor, of course, is not all-powerful, or he could indeed scrub the words off his throne and have nothing bad happen. Nor does he seem to be omniscient, to predict the rules would backfire in this way. (Unless this whole thing was his plan, of course, but it's a pretty complicated and painful plan compared to "nobody has to die ever, I the Emperor say so.")

But there's a loophole in this law, which is that Jadis is entitled to one person, not necessarily the person who did the crime, so if we can talk her into a switch, Edmund can get off. Again, this is a really weird rule for the Emperor to have. What is the point of punishing someone who isn't the criminal? Why is Jadis the one who gets to decide if she's okay with the swap or not?

In Mere Christianity, there's a whole bit justifying this, in that Jesus was "the perfect penitent" since he didn't do anything wrong. But he's justly able to apologize for all sins because he's the one sinned against in every sin. Or something like that. I don't really buy it. Wouldn't he have to be the one who had sinned in every sin to be able to apologize for every sin?

It's just really odd that one of our intuitions ("bad people should be punished") is in fact a law so strong it binds even God, but the other one ("the punishment should be applied to the bad person, specifically") is not. Again, where do laws that bind God come from? From logic? Who was supposed to have created logic?

The Stone Table scene is beautiful and moving if you are a Christian, but if you're not, it just seems kind of upsetting. None of it makes any real sense. And I don't think it brings us any closer to a reasonable understanding of what redemption could mean.

Not a Tame Lion

This is a line that appears over and over in the books whenever Aslan does things we don't like. After all, he's not tame. He does what he wants and he comes and goes as he pleases, you can't expect any given thing of him. But you are supposed to trust him. Also he may roar at you at random, and most of his appearances involve him being stern and scary.

I remember Aslan being a snuggly, nice lion, because of the romp scenes with Lucy and Susan in the first and second books. But skimming back through, not every character gets such a positive experience. Most of Aslan's appearances, he's no fun at all, and he's often terrifying. Take Jill's first experience of him:

But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion.

   It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away—as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her.

This, by the way, is how for years I pictured God looking at me. As if he knew me quite well and didn't think much of me. And no matter how much I told myself he wasn't like that, I couldn't help seeing that version when I closed my eyes. I kinda want to blame Lewis for that.

“If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.
   “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
   [...She] realized that it was the lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
   “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
   “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
   “Then drink,” said the Lion.
   “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
   The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
   The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
   “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
   “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
   Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
   “Do you eat girls?” she said.
   “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
   “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
   “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
   “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
   “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

The poor girl has never heard of Aslan till this morning. She has no reason to know Aslan is good. And Aslan does not seem to care to convince her. He's just . . . I don't know how to describe this but throwing his weight around. Demonstrating to her that she has to trust him because she has no choice.

And I could take this as just happening for plot reasons (though it seems very deliberate to me) if it were not that this is exactly how I've heard being Christian described. Is it horrible a lot of the time? Yeah. Has it historically harmed people? Oh definitely. But you don't have a choice because you will perish if you don't obey.

I'm sorry, that's just a . . . really terrible worldview! One which people believe with complete sincerity. And yet later, we will be told that Puddleglum chooses to believe in Aslan because even if it's false, it's better. It doesn't seem that much better to me! If we can choose to believe in things that are nice, simply because they are nice, I would choose to believe in an Aslan who said, "You poor thing, you must be so traumatized from seeing Eustace topple off a cliff; it wasn't your fault, okay? And I'm sorry about all the terrible bullying you're going through. By the end of this book you won't ever get bullied again."

But Aslan never does what a decent person would do, because he's not "tame." I'm not tame either, but I'm still capable of being compassionate. Having a God who can be predicted to take compassionate actions isn't "taming" God or attempting to "put him in a box." It's predicting his behavior based on his known nature. Why can't we do that?

Of course, for plot reasons it's necessary for Aslan to hold back from pitching in until things are horribly desperate, and to fail to explain things just so we can be kept in suspense. But for theological reasons, it's just as necessary. Because, while there is little we can say about God, we can say with certainty that he doesn't intervene to help when people are in trouble or provide comfort when we're sad, not with any reliable consistency. Just like Aslan.

Puddleglum's Stomp

Next, since I just referred to it, let's talk about that pivotal scene in The Silver Chair, when Puddleglum stomps on the fire and tells the witch that the sun and Aslan are real, and even if not, he'll still believe in them.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

People cite this scene a lot, as what it's really like to almost become an atheist and then turn back to believing again. Because you can get into a state of mind where you almost don't believe, but you can (and should) always turn back and believe again.

The first issue is that enchantment isn't real, so when you almost don't believe in God, it's probably because of reasons that seem true to your mind. (Or perhaps a deep depression--seeing the visible world as a nasty, gray, underground hole is definitely a sign of depression.) So there's no real reason to assume that the thought that God isn't real is less reliable than the thought you previously had that said he was.

The second is that there are any number of possibilities with different levels of optimism. There are much nicer realities we could choose to believe in than Christianity: we could believe in a completely agreeable deity who saves everyone regardless of what they do, who approves of any conceivable action we might want to take. We could believe that aliens are shortly going to come and take us all to a better place. We could choose to believe in fairies! Puddleglum is choosing between a simple binary: cruddy underground kingdom, or the nice world he half-remembers from outside. We are not.

And the third, at most vital, problem with this is that reality actually matters. You can't navigate the world you live in if you're in denial about what world it is. If Puddleglum thinks the Overland exists when it doesn't and spends his life looking for it in vain, he'll waste any number of opportunities to make the real, underground world better. What if his dream of a sun is an inspiration to create a fusion reactor? Sure, that's not as cool or poetic, but it could improve the lives of everyone down there.

It's really hard for me to argue why it's good to believe the truth, because the truth is what believing is for. Our minds are a tool that's principally good for finding the truth about things and making plans for how to navigate that truth. If you refuse to use it that way, it's kind of like using the good sewing scissors making paper dolls. Sure you can, but it's a terrible waste of something that's good for more than that. And yes, I do think willfully believing false things on purpose will ruin your mind in the long run, just like paper does to sewing scissors.

Things People Secretly Know

In Narnia, it's a very common experience for people to claim, even within their private thoughts, to believe one thing, while actually they secretly know or suspect they're wrong.

Digory knows he's not enchanted into ringing the bell that wakes Jadis, but he pretends he is.

Edmund knows the White Witch will be cruel to his siblings, but he pretends to himself that they'll be treated well.

In Prince Caspian, Susan secretly knows Lucy is telling the truth about having seen Aslan showing the path out of the woods, but ignores that because she's in such a hurry to get out of the woods.

Self-deception is a real thing! I'm not going to pretend (even to myself, haha) that it's not. We sometimes simultaneously believe two things, and keep one uppermost in our mind because it's the one that jives best with our self-image. I get that.

But it's not actually easy to tell which one is real, so the amount of blame characters get for doing this is pretty frustrating. It's not like being confused about which thing you believe is a moral fault. It's more that figuring out the truth is hard. I would blame Susan if she explicitly knew Lucy was telling the truth and lied and said she wasn't (you know, like Edmund does about the wardrobe after his first visit) but in this case, she's not even aware she's deceiving herself till afterwards . . . yet it's still considered a fault.

I also call BS on many of these circumstances, because if these characters really secretly believed in what they claim to, they wouldn't act the way they do. For instance, if Susan secretly knows Lucy saw Aslan showing the path out of the forest, and she's in a tremendous hurry to get out of the forest . . . wouldn't she immediately follow Lucy? Her behavior only makes sense if she really, truly does not believe Lucy.

Compare to a Christian who, on some level, knows God isn't real but pretends to herself she does. (This isn't any of you, this is me immediately pre-deconversion, okay?) If you ask her if she expects a miracle to happen, she might say there's a chance of it. But the true belief is visible in the fact that she never acts like she has the slightest expectation that a miracle will  happen. If people actually believed, strongly believed, in hellfire, they would never even be tempted to commit mortal sins. Why not? Well because nothing could be worse than hellfire, certainly not a missed opportunity to commit some good sins. If people really believed that prayer would have vast positive results in their lives, they wouldn't be lazy about it. I'm not lazy about taking my vitamins, because I know they work well and have experienced this! I got lazy about praying sometimes, as everyone does, because I had tried that approach and had no good effects.

If Edmund really thought that the Witch was going to be horribly cruel to his siblings, he wouldn't rush back to her like that because he would be afraid for his own life. If she's like that to them, she could be like that to him. But he doesn't worry a  bit about it, because in fact he doesn't think of her as a cruel person at all. Not explicitly, and not "secretly" either.

But this is part and parcel of Lewis's belief that atheists secretly know God is real and are just pretending they don't. Or that every bad action that we think isn't willful, truly is on some secret level. He wants us to believe we are all much more responsible for our mistakes than we are. And I think that gave me a lot of shame as a kid, worrying that what I thought were mistakes were really something I could have resisted if I'd tried harder. The Narnian kids are never, ever given any leeway for mistakes. Aslan always knows they're lying, even when they don't. That was a pretty scary thing to believe as a kid.

Liar, Lunatic, or True Narnian

When Lucy first comes back from visiting Narnia, the other kids don't believe her. Which seems reasonable, since she's making extraordinary claims and they checked the back of the wardrobe.

We learn, over the course of the story, that believing Lucy on no proof is virtuous. Always. She is always one hundred percent reliable, and she's usually put in positions where she's the only witness of Aslan so you have no choice to believe her. We know, as the reader, that she's telling the truth, but the other characters don't. They're still supposed to believe, because believing on no evidence is Good. (But not, you know, believing the White Witch or Shift the ape or the Green Lady or the Giants, whom we are supposed to figure out are Bad.) This is part of Lewis's moral lesson he's trying to make about faith.

   "We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."
   "Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."
   "But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.
   "Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

This is a restatement of Lewis's "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" trilemma about Jesus. If a person isn't known for being a liar, and they aren't obviously insane, they must be telling the truth.

It's wrong in Mere Christianity, and it's wrong here too. There are so many other things that could be going on here. Maybe the mothballs are hallucinogenic and Lucy had a wild dream in the wardrobe. Maybe she's traumatized by the separation from her parents and is turning to her imagination so strongly that she can't tell the difference anymore. Mental illness isn't actually diagnosible by "only looking at" someone, and even people who are mentally healthy may occasionally hallucinate, experience mass hysteria, or be deceived. There are so many reasons why people say things that aren't true besides that they are lying or crazy.

But Lewis doesn't seem to believe so. Everyone who is wrong "secretly knows" that they're wrong, in his books. Nobody sees a swatch of tawny leaves in the woods and hopes so much to see Aslan that they think it might be him. Nobody is scared or doubtful of Aslan unless they're secretly bad. I get that it's a kids' book and things are simplified, but I think Lewis actually believed this to some degree. The Apostles couldn't hope that Jesus is somehow still alive and have some spiritual, nonphysical experiences that got magnified by later writers into physical appearances. Nope. They are con men, lunatics (which they can't be, because they can put sentences together), or Jesus is alive. 

The unpleasant corollary of this is that the prophets of other religions are all liars or lunatics, because we take as given that they're not lords. It also seems that Lewis believes atheists are lying too, at least if we take Edmund and Susan as examples. Each claims, at one point, that Narnia was only just a game, but both clearly know that's not the case. 

I don't know how to prove that atheists do not, in fact, secretly know that God is real. Except, I guess, that there's no real benefit in it. If I knew I was going to burn for eternity for lying about believing in God, I can't think why I'd do it. I want to act ethically--it's my primary motivation most of the time--so failing to use the best information available on how to do that would be pretty dumb of me. Just like it's pretty dumb of Susan or Edmund to pretend Narnia isn't real. What do they get out of it? How is Edmund going to tempt his siblings into Narnia so he can get another hit of magic candy if he pretends it's not there? 

Worshiping Aslan All Along

Time to talk about my least favorite Narnia book, The Last Battle. Mostly I hate it because it ends all of Narnia; I would have preferred not to read it and let Narnia continue on indefinitely in my imagination. Second, I hate it because Lewis did Susan dirty. I don't think he hated Susan particularly; I think he just wanted to make a point about how even people who have truly experienced God can wander away from him. But, like I said, Susan actually does believe and is lying, which makes her a very bad example of an atheist.

But let me talk about a bit people really love, which is where Emeth, a follower of the false god Tash, finds out Aslan is the true God of Narnia.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

I don't entirely hate this. I do think you can worship a better deity than you think you do, if as you pray you imagine something a little different than the texts describe. And there are people who worship a pretty horrific version of the Christian God, as you can tell by what they think that God will do to people they don't like.

But it feels very disrespectful of people's agency to just say, hey, you're one of us now! I like the idea that I could die and pick a deity who best embodied what I sought in my lifetime. I don't like being told by other people that I'm secretly Christian even though I am not. I guess it's because the focus isn't on whether God is acceptable to me, but on whether I will be acceptable to a God I didn't choose. Does that sound horribly egotistical? I just think that people should have the agency to decide for themselves if they really were "worshiping God all along." And maybe that is meant by Emeth falling at Aslan's feet, that Emeth recognizes that Aslan is what he in fact wants. That just isn't the part that people focus on when they cite this verse at me. They think they are reassuring me when they say I might really be one of them. In reality, it feels like they're reassuring themselves--because they believe there is only one right answer, and they want to believe that I'll make it in somehow.

I still like the books, on some level. The scenery is beautiful, the style is charming, and if none of the human characters have that much agency in the plot, I never noticed that while reading them. I've given the books to my kids, and they love them too.

But I don't buy the theological lessons that are in these books. I am not sure I ever could have if I were older and not primed to read them like scripture. Maybe Tolkien was right and allegory is a fool's game. (Want me to write a post nitpicking Tolkien? No, right? I would hate doing it because of course it has flaws, but man, those books were formative.)
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