An annual symptom of our lunatic condition

C. S. Lewis wrote that there are three things that go around by the name “Christmas”.

The first is a religious festival, important to Christians and not really to anyone else. The second is a popular holiday, a time of hospitality and general merry-making. The third is, in Lewis’ words, “a commercial racket”, which he said was “forced on us by the shopkeepers”. It is primarily the third thing which annoyed Lewis, and which he condemned, giving the following reasons:

1) “It gives on the whole more pain than pleasure.” Pay attention, he wrote, to the family who tries to “keep” Christmas in this commercial sense. They are soon worn out by the effort of finding gifts and remembering everyone they need to give gifts to. Come Christmas, “They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.”

2) “Most of it is involuntary.” Lewis decries the modern rule that you have to give a gift to everyone who gives an (unprovoked) gift to you. “It is almost blackmail.”

3) “Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself – gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before.”

4) “The nuisance.” The whole thing, he writes, triples the trouble of all the normal work of life (like everyday shopping trips), that we already have to do.

He concludes (again, writing in England in 1957!):

“We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers?”

The whole essay is found in God in the Dock.

The truest index of our real situation

C.S. Lewis, from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”:

In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside – repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other had, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

The demise of Wither and Frost

Finished That Hideous Strength – a wise and strange book – in many ways I was continually surprised by the strangeness of it. I believe Alan Jacobs wrote that Lewis was very influenced by Charles Williams when writing it, and whether or not I’m remembering that correctly, it has the ring of truth. It is distinctly Lewis – his philosophy, his style, his sense of humor. But especially in the early chapters I was continually reminded of Williams’ novels, and his interweaving of the spiritual, the bizarre and the modern.

But That Hideous Strength is still Lewis through and through, and bears the marks of his cohesive philosophy. Many talk about his picture of hell as populated by people who choose to be there, and point to his treatment of that idea in The Great Divorce or in The Problem of Pain. But he depicts that same idea here in it’s most frightening form. He does so in depicting the deaths of the academics Wither and Frost, acting heads of NICE (the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). In both cases their descent into death (and quite truly, hell) is a direct result of their life-long choices, their basic life orientation and their deepest beliefs.

For Wither (who dies first), the realization that he is going to die is incapable of moving him. “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.

So how indeed do the damned go to their damnation? Lewis continues:

The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moments before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction.

There it is, same as in The Great Divorce. After a lifetime of choices, in the final, fatal moment of last opportunity, the person chooses a “tiny habitual sensuality”, a trivial resentment, or the indulgence of lethargy rather than surrender to God and true joy. And so:

With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.”

Frost likewise faces a final moment of choice, a small glimpse of clarity, and yet is damned by his own choice and firm belief. A thorough-going materialist, Frost believes there is nothing but matter and that his own self is merely a projection of his body. It is a matter of fundamental faith for him that the soul and all transcendant values, morals and meaning are merely material phenomenon which disappear when seen “objectively”. And so at the end of his story the full ramifications of this belief play out. Nearing death, he is allowed:

“to suspect that death itself might not after all cure the illusion of being a soul – nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The physical torture of the burning was not fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion.

Here it is again, in full. The opportunity to escape damnation – to say to God, “Thy will be done” – was offered. He glimpses this alternate world, the real world of the immaterial that he had denied (souls, personal responsibility), and rather than accept it, he denies it with heroic effort. It doesn’t matter if it is true – he hates the very idea of such a world. “He half saw: he wholly hated.”

And so, his demise is also sealed.

In that attitude eternity overtook him as sunrise in old tales overtakes and turns them into unchangeable stone.

Here is a frightening depiction of humans rejecting God and instead of surrender choosing damnation. Here too is a depiction of the deeper caverns of volition. What if, prior to reason, prior to evidence, prior to logic, humans are most fundamentally subject to our desires? 

And what if our desires are deeply bent? What hope is there for us, if we don’t want, won’t accept, the only heaven and more importantly the only God that there is?

No hope, outside of the deep regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

The horror when beauty becomes too weak a stimulant

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Suddenly…desire (salt, black, ravenous, unanswerable desire) took him by the throat.

…[This desire] disenchants the universe. Everything else that Mark had ever felt – love, ambition, hunger, lust itself – appeared to have been mere milk and water, toys for children, not worth one throb of the nerves…

…It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant.

The diminishing possibility of neutrality

From That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis:

Have you ever noticed, said Dimble, that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?…

I mean this…If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. the whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.

Alive and approaching at infinite speed

You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters—when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “It’s alive!”

And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power that we can tap-best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that!

C. S. Lewis