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.)


Rosina said...

Interesting topic. The Narnia books were my favorites as a (non-religious) child, but I resented the Christian allegory once I became aware of it and mostly disliked Aslan. Today I am a Catholic and still like the books, still mostly don't like the Christian allegory and fervently dislike Aslan, much more than I did growing up, because the idea that he represents Christ makes me so uncomfortable. The nadir for me is perhaps the bit that you don't mention where he tears up Aravis's back with his claws because she (while running away from becoming a horrible old man's child bride) had callously left a servant girl to be flogged and she "had to know what it felt like". This is SO far from my understanding of Christ's "modus operandi". I much prefer the literary C S Lewis to the Christian apologist where his books for adults are concerned, as well; I think that because of his power as a writer he is highly overrated as a theological/spiritual writer.

Sheila said...

That part was awful! Especially as Caspian and Cornelius do basically the same thing when they escape and never get blamed for it. If you read carefully, it turns out a lot of things are good or bad depending on who does them, or what Lewis is trying to preach. Like, is it bad to trust a magic user who enslaves people, and eat their magic food? If it's Jadis, it's the worst thing you could ever do; if it's Coriakin it's totally fine. That kind of thing.

Charlemagne said...

If your looking for a future deconstruction project, I'd like to see your takedown of A Wrinkle in Time.

Sheila said...

I was just thinking of rereading those! If I do, I'll dig into them. Again, I loved them and hate the thought of going back and not loving them, but on the other hand I *know* there's some hot nonsense in there.

Rosina said...

The Puddleglum passage, on the other hand, does work pretty well for me, but I see it as a metaphor for those times when something you genuinely believe in and think you have good reasons for believing in (it doesn't even have to be Christianity, it could be an ethical conviction or a sense of personal purpose or the like) gets temporarily obscured by an emotional fog or other people's manipulation or fatigue, etc., and you have to sustain yourself by going through the motions and behaving "as if" it were true until things clear up.

Anonymous said...

I feel that the Lord/Liar/Lune trichotomy is a better argument for Islam than Christianity anyway.

AthenaC said...

Lot of great thoughts here. I just want to comment on two things quickly:

“Why does the Emperor have such a horrible thing written on his throne? Did he write it there? Why?”

It doesn’t really work in a narrative where the Emperor is a person who arbitrarily makes choices among a menu of equally feasible options (or at least it’s heavily implied that it works that way). The way I understand this as an adult is that it’s embedded in to the fabric of the universe that God created. Or in Narnia-speak – the Deep Magic from before the dawn of time. It has to be this way in order to reap all the good things about the universe. As far as why, specifically, it has to work that way – I’ll be honest, I haven’t created many universes lately so I don’t know what all is involved. From where I’m sitting I have no problem trusting that this is how it has to be, but it’s certainly a very fair question.

“Worshiping Aslan all along”

Another thing that doesn’t really work in a narrative where our God stand-ins are anthropomorphized. As an adult, I think this makes sense if you’re thinking about the philosophical concept of God as Goodness Personified. As a Being that’s beyond any conceptual constraints as pedestrian as a lion, or even beyond anything our minds could comprehend. Against that backdrop, to me it’s comforting that God claims all goodness and that he rejects any evil done in his name. I actually like the way it’s explained in the passage you quoted, but again – you have to think that some sort of Goodness Personified being actually exists for that to be as meaningful as he intended it, so I get why you respond the way you do.

Charlemagne said...

The defense would like to point out, as regards the requirements to be King/Queen of Narnia, that seeing as how Aslan created the the place in the first place, is it really so outrageous that he gets to set the rules?

Sheila said...

I guess I'd say the same thing to both Charlemagne and Athena here: "Aslan made the rules" is not an explanation for anything. WHY Aslan made them that way is a valid question. He's supposed to be a rational being, yeah? What reason could he possibly have for any of these decisions?

I can think of why Aslan would make a land of animals ruled by humans: because the whole place exists mainly for the moral improvement of English schoolchildren. That would explain why he let the animals suffer for 100 years under the White Witch and 700 years under the Telmarines when he was going to be the one to save them in the end. It's kind of a horrible thing to do from the point of view of the animals he created, but we can say that, canonically, he is a character that cares much more about humans than animals.

The other thing defended, the "laws on the emperor's throne," makes even less sense. What could possibly be the rational reason? Did Aslan want to help the others forgive Edmund? Because they seem cool once he even apologizes, whereas it's a lot harder to forgive "we saw our lion friend brutally murdered because of you." I don't think "I've never created any worlds" helps at all. We can at least *imagine* creating worlds and speculate about what might be logically necessary. "A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same way" sounds like a logical necessity. "Every time someone is a traitor, someone, not necessarily the same person, must die" does not. It sounds arbitrary.

It basically means the same as Aslan saying, "I chose for the rules to be that way, and I don't want to back out now." Why does Lewis say that? Because he knows kids wouldn't buy that, so he distances Aslan from the decision he made by attributing it to an emperor across the sea (who, I suppose, is probably the same being with Aslan in some metaphysical way) and saying it *can't* be changed, that even Aslan can't.

I'm not saying it *can't* work. I'm saying it's not, ultimately, any more satisfying or sensible than the version we're told in church. It explains nothing.

Sheila said...

Anonymous, that's a very good point. At any rate we do know exactly, from his own mouth, what Muhammad claimed. We can't say that about Jesus; we only know what four evangelists claimed that he claimed. And they didn't even all say the same things.

Charlemagne said...

If Terry Pratchett has written Narnia, would you be giving it this much scrutiny?

Sheila said...

If Discworld were intended as a massive theological parable, I might. It's not really that kind of world, though. While philosophical points are made, you can appreciate the story without them. There's a part in Hogfather where Death pretty much explains existentialism, and when I first read it, I didn't like it at all. Later I thought maybe it was actually pretty good. I dunno. It's good-ish if you're already existentialist, but if you're not, you won't find it proved. Kind of like Narnia that way. But in any event, you could cut the whole bit out and it's still a fine story about Pig Santa, basically.

AthenaC said...

Re: "The way the universe is and the way it has to be" - what sort of answer would you find satisfying?

ficino4ml said...

I really like this post, Sheila! It's been decades since I read the Narnia books, but I shared some of your disquiet and now agree with many things you wrote, which I didn't think of!

There is one scene I always liked, but I may be misremembering it. Is there a scene where a princess is relating how she was going to commit suicide, and she narrates how her horse said, "Oh my lady, do not do this thing, for if you live, you may yet have good fortune, but if you die, the dead are all dead alike." And then the horse says she (the horse) hadn't put it anywhere near so eloquently. ??

As I said some time ago, I was a very fervent Catholic, but eventually the disconnect between reality and what the religion said about reality became too great.

I slightly knew Madeleine L'Engle. Another Episcopalian writer.

Sheila said...

That was The Horse and His Boy, when Aravis almost killed herself and Hwin saved her. Here's the quote:

“When this news was brought to me the sun appeared dark in my eyes and I laid myself on my bed and wept for a day. But on the second day I rose up and washed my face and caused my mare Hwin to be saddled and took with me a sharp dagger which my brother had carried in the western wars and rode out alone. And when my father’s house was out of sight and I was come to a green open place in a certain wood where there were no dwellings of men, I dismounted from Hwin my mare and took out the dagger. Then I parted my clothes where I thought the readiest way lay to my heart and I prayed to all the gods that as soon as I was dead I might find myself with my brother. After that I shut my eyes and my teeth and prepared to drive the dagger into my heart. But before I had done so, this mare spoke with the voice of one of the daughters of men and said, ‘O my mistress, do not by any means destroy yourself, for if you live you may yet have good fortune but all the dead are dead alike.’”
“I didn’t say it half so well as that,” muttered the mare.

I just picked up a five-in-one Madeleine L'Engle volume, to reread. If I think of anything interesting to say, I'll blog it.

Melissa D said...

Thank you for writing this. I've been trying to deconstruct a lot of the ideas Lewis' works implanted into the deepest recesses of my psyche - because while I am several years out from deconversion (at least...from finally admitting to myself and a few other people that Catholicism and Christianity did not work for me anymore), there are so many times I feel like a hypocrite because while I don't believe in the Church or Jesus, the fiction I was steeped in has put my brain in a place where I think I SHOULD. The Puddleglum bit in particular - well, even if God isn't real or the church isn't actually divinely appointed, shouldn't I believe in them anyway because it's better to do so?
But I can't. And deconstructing the way the ideas are wrong (love your fusion reactor thought!) helps me get rid of these unquestioned assumptions.
It's been interesting to have conversations with people who DIDN'T grow up with these ideas and books. I cited the "liar/lunatic/lord" idea to a non-christian friend during a deep discussion and she said..."uh, no, there are plenty of other options for what was going on with Jesus saying he was God." And I realized she was right! "Lunacy" is an outdated concept anyway...and isn't binary or visible.
I wish we could be IRL friends. Lol

Sheila said...

Melissa, with the pandemic on, there's no longer any distinction between meatspace and virtual friends. Everyone's online only! ;)

Yeah, it goes deep. There's an assumption in religious circles that we have to catechize children early, and I think they're not wrong. Children aren't critical the way adults are, to notice that there are many other options to the trilemma. And they absorb the ideas so deeply that they're hard to uproot, even when the conscious mind rejects them. Religions that don't proselytize children don't last as long--like the Shakers, for instance.

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