journey post 13—Reflecting on the “Big Unease” Inside: Haunted by the ghosts of Lewis and Marley
Top: C.S. Lewis
Bottom: Jacob Marley speaking to Scrooge
For the past couple weeks, I’ve been living in a sort of hibernation, a function not of writer’s block but writer’s haunting. I kept writing, but what I put on paper did not express rightly how I had connected with C.S. Lewis back in 1970. The truth is, I disconnected from him at a key point. It would take many 2×4’s along my zigzag journey before I would see it.
Had I been on track with Lewis back then, I would have seen that there is something fundamental about living life that many miss because we humans are so self-focused. I certainly was. More than I care to admit, I am the one who has lived at the center of my own life, pursuing what is safe and comfortable rather than really living.
I begin with these observations:
The unfortunate thing about pride and self-centeredness is that, as long as you think you’re so important, you become blind to what really is. Everything you’re interested in—most of it, anyway—becomes about you and not about others, unless it’s negative. Of course, you are unaware of being blinded, and may never see…
I did that while reading Mere Christianity in 1970. I assumed I knew where Lewis was heading with this “law of human nature” business. In my mind, it was obvious that he was setting people up to think about sin and God and hell. Well…, yes, he was, in a sense. But he was thinking at a more fundamental level, a level completely unrelated to a any legalistic religious lists of do’s and don’ts. Had I not been blinded here by my pride, my self-focused assumptions about sin, and my agenda, I would have realized that he was talking about something outside my limited pigeonhole marked “Christianity.”
One of the things I’ve learned, in the course of a long life of zigging and zagging, is that pride can be very subtle. I was back in college in 1970, along with others seeking to validate our own adult intelligence. One way of doing that was by reading certifiably smart people. For me, that was Lewis. I assumed this “law” he was speaking of was the same as the Commandments, the “Thou shalt not’s” from my church experience, and I read into Lewis my own pitiful understanding of sin as a result. As near as I can reconstruct my thinking, sin was a church word, something that had to do with God and things that Christians were not supposed to do, like smoking, drinking, reading Playboy, going to topless bars, and of course the biggies like robbery and murder and adultery, things I never did, so I thought. I knew that sin would send people to hell. But I didn’t linger there, for my agenda as I read was to get to the part about the resurrection and get my own questions about Jesus answered. I knew that if Jesus was who he said, then he had paid for my sin, I wouldn’t have to be concerned about it, and I could pass go (go to heaven), collect my $200 (eternal reward) and take my “Get out of jail [hell] free” card. Safe, forever…
Last post, I quoted Lewis’ summary points on the “law of human nature.” Here it is again: “First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in,” (p. 8).
Lewis doesn’t caution against reading our own legalisms into the “law,” but he does make plain that the law of human nature is about people: how we should relate to others and how we expect others to relate to us. (This sounds familiar, like maybe the “golden rule.”) The examples he gives—things like fairness, honesty, justice, mercy, courage—are also remarkably like the things Jesus would be bringing up when speaking of the “more important things of the law” in confronting the religious leaders of Israel who were placing unbearable legalistic burdens on the people.
A “foundation of all clear thinking…” I have been pondering that. It’s plain that I was not on the same wavelength as Lewis after all. My distorted idea of sin, because it was centered on me and my performance, would set me up to accept all kinds of legalistic nonsense about what I should do or not do to be a good Christian. It would take many 2×4’s from the hand of a loving Father for me to see what was truly important, and it would take nearly losing my family for me to wake up.
Now, the title of this piece mentions a “Big Unease.” You may guess that it refers to what happens when we begin to see how abysmally we’ve kept the “law.” If we’re honest, we don’t need a preacher throwing Bible verses at us to know how we’ve fared at doing right by our neighbor: If right and wrong is hard-wired in us (aka “conscience”), then some thing or some one “out there” must be interested in our abysmal job. So, will there come a reckoning?
Lewis cautions us here not to leap ahead to picture a god of organized religion, especially not the Christian God (and, by implication, whatever institutional list of rules we go by). At this point, we are like other peoples who are aware of a god, or like Rod Serling talks about in the opening to “The Twilight Zone,” in a place “between science and superstition,” a place “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”
The reason Lewis starts where he does is so that we can see that there is a real right and real wrong, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with what some religious people are telling us. Right and wrong are built into our very inner being, so we cannot write them off as someone’s rules. We will find that such a universal morality is the main ethic of Christianity but, rather than a legalistic burden imposed by others to control us, is what we ourselves expect from one another. Right and wrong tell us more about the nature of our creator than anything, because we see it from the inside.
Why did I mention Marley in the title? Do you remember the scene in A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley? Not comprehending how self-centered greed left Marley in his current state, Scrooge says: “’But you were always a good man of business, Jacob…’ ‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’” Scrooge’s “unease” was just beginning.
To view an 8-minute video of Marley confronting Scrooge: