June 21st 2008

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: 'Peak oil': Apocalypse now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Whither the Nationals?

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: What happens after cheap credit, oil and food?

SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS: Rudd grants special rights to same-sex couples

FAMILY POLICY: Home truths about working families

EUTHANASIA: Assisted suicide: safeguards or naivety?

NATIONAL SECURITY: Soviet bloc espionage: setting the record straight

DEFENCE: Should Australia have nuclear defence capability?

CHINA: Beijing muzzles protests over Sichuan earthquake

UNITED STATES: Is Obama equipped to lead the free world?

CULTURE: How political correctness threatens Australian culture

ART: The downward spiral of modern art

Barack Obama's oratory (letter)

Why cutting Australian emissions won't work (letter)

Baby imports? (letter)

Short-term stupidity (letter)

CINEMA: New Narnian epic Prince Caspian surpasses expectations

BOOKS: INKLINGS OF HEAVEN: C.S. Lewis And Eschatology, by Sean Connolly

Books promotion page

INKLINGS OF HEAVEN: C.S. Lewis And Eschatology, by Sean Connolly

by Bill James

News Weekly, June 21, 2008
Beyond Shadowlands

C.S. Lewis And Eschatology
by Sean Connolly

(Gracewing / Freedom Publishing)
Paperback: 320 pages
Rec. price: AUD$49.90

During his final illness, when he knew he was dying, C.S. Lewis wrote to a friend: "It is all rather fun - solemn fun - isn't it?"

He realised that he was fast approaching the place of which he had written: "Joy is the serious business of heaven."

Eschatology, that branch of theology which deals with the last things, comprises more than Heaven; but for Lewis Heaven was the aspect that mattered most. The "Inklings" of the title is literal, though also a play on the name of a club to which he belonged.

Heaven was the fulfilment of what Lewis called sehnsucht, that imaginative yearning which nothing in this life can satisfy.


That was why he was so sceptical of utopian attempts to build Heaven on earth or, to quote the late William Buckley, "immanentise the eschaton".

In his greatest sermon, The Weight Of Glory (preached in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, where Cranmer was tried, and where the pre-Tractarian Newman charmed packed congregations of undergraduates), Lewis described without naming sehnsucht as "the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited".

Inklings is based on Connolly's doctoral thesis, and it shows. He is obliged to engage with contemporary professional theologians of eschatology as well as with Lewis, and to deal with a number of fairly abstruse philosophical issues. He even reprises the mediaeval debate over universals between the realists and the nominalists.

Anyone looking for some Lewisian bed-time reading would be better to stick with Screwtape or the Narnia books.

Popular interest in eschatology tends to be manifested in a preoccupation with detailed End Time timetables. Books based on this theme, such as the Left Behind fiction series, have sold in their millions to American evangelicals. Connolly has avoided reference to them, no doubt because of his academic priorities, but also possibly because he is writing from a Roman Catholic perspective.

However, the broad truths of eschatology are common to all of Christendom. Both Catholics and Protestants can subscribe to the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, each containing affirmations of future resurrection, judgement and eternal existence.

Eschatology is inextricably linked with soteriology, the theology of salvation. It is interesting to note an increasing Catholic/Protestant convergence in this field also.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of two statements, The Gift Of Salvation from Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), and The Joint Declaration Of The Doctrine Of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Both agree that Heaven is attained "by grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work".

Lewis cannot be easily co-opted by the Roman communion. He retained a strong streak of anti-Catholicism which his friend J.R.R. Tolkien referred to as "the Ulsterior motive".

Neither does he fit comfortably with his other fan constituency, the evangelicals, because of his sympathy with some Catholic doctrines such as Purgatory.

On the core issue of salvation, however, he affirmed in Reflections On The Psalms that, "We must all pin our hopes on the mercy of God and the work of Christ, not on our own goodness".

Lewis did not treat death lightly. He was devastated by the loss of his mother when he was only nine, while A Grief Observed, about the loss of his wife Joy, is the angriest and most passionate thing he ever wrote.

The reason why he could take such a phlegmatic attitude toward his own imminent demise was his Augustinian theodicy (theory of evil) and Platonic ontology (theory of existence).

Augustine taught that evil has no existence of its own; it is merely the absence of the good. Lewis agreed, regarding evil as alien, anomalous, parasitical, derivative, vacuous and evanescent.

He was not a universalist, and believed in the judgement of the finally impenitent, but he refused to dignify Hell as a counterpart of Heaven.

In the exact words often used by the evangelist Billy Graham, he asserted that, "hell was not made for men".

He eschewed any sort of Manichaean dualism, in which kingdoms of darkness and light eternally co-exist.

Not only do the goodies win, but in the end, goodness is all there is. Hell is there, but it is not real.

Ultimate reality

Unlike Plato, Lewis believed that this world contains many genuinely good and beautiful things which can be legitimately enjoyed. Like Plato, he believed that they do not constitute ultimate reality and do not provide ultimate fulfilment.

Hence his term Shadowlands, possibly based on Plato's famous illustration of the cave, or perhaps derived from John Henry Newman's epitaph "ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem - out of shadows and illusions into reality".

The contents of this world foreshadow their permanent and substantial Platonic Ideals or Forms. The Narnia of most of the Chronicles points forward to the perfect Narnia glimpsed at the end of The Last Battle.

Lewis maintained that reason is the organ of truth, but that imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition. In other words, metaphysical reality (such as Heaven) cannot be expressed literally, but has to be conveyed by metaphor.

The challenge, therefore, in a field such as eschatology, is not to attempt the impossible and avoid metaphor. It is rather to find and use the best possible metaphors, while at the same time realising that they are only metaphors, and can never comprehend the fullness of what they describe.

New and eternal

Lewis made no attempt to emulate Dante, whose Paradiso ends with a beatific vision involving roses, light, flames and circles. Instead, he wisely ends the description of Aslan in the new and eternal Narnia with the words: "...things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them".

Heaven in the Bible is variously pictured as a city, a garden and a wedding feast, but each illustration can only be pushed so far. Take the nuptial motif, for example. Newman's opponent Charles Kingsley, who provoked the Apologia, would have affronted the delicate churchman even more had he published his private conjecture that Heaven would consist of a sexual paradise.

Lewis was particularly scathing about popular portrayals of Heaven as a family re-union, or an everlasting session of celestial conviviality in which a good time is had by all (though "all" will be "good"; in Heaven, terrestrial morality will be transcended and left behind).

While Lewis believed that this world could convey partial and preliminary "inklings" of Heaven, he utterly rejected Feuerbach's theory of projection (later taken up by Freud and Marx) which sees Heaven as an imaginary fulfilment of our deepest wishes, and a compensation for their frustration.

This was part of his larger project of restoring doctrines such as the Resurrection to the status of truths faintly adumbrated by myths (such as dying and rising crop-gods), rather than mere examples of such myths.

There is much more in this book than can be even hinted at in a review. The influences on Lewis's eschatology which Connolly deals with include Athanasius, Aquinas, Dante, Tyndale, Milton, MacDonald, Chesterton, Barth, Tolkien and Williams.

Don't expect an easy read, but do anticipate rewarding stimulation and challenge.

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