Jan 28, 2013

The Great Divorce and Plato

by Matthew McEwen

Books like Howard Snyder’s Salvation Means Creation Healed or Steven Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth have done much to reframe a theology of the physical world, replacing a more common Platonic world view that considers matter and the stuff of earth to be worthless or even evil. Although C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors, I used to be concerned about his use of Plato in his writings. A clear example of this Platonic influence can be seen in his work, The Great Divorce. In that story, souls from hell are granted an excursion to the outskirts of heaven. What they left was a Gray town (with shops that sold the works of Aristotle), and what they came to was a place alive with colour. The crowd from hell, or the gray town, felt like ghosts and shadows once they arrive in a place that is described as being solid. A single blade of grass would not bend under the feet of the ghosts, and even water in the river nearby was solid enough for a ghost to walk on it.

According to The C.S. Lewis Reader’s Encyclopedia:
Lewis had a high regard for Plato, the great Greek Philosopher. In his final Narnia Chronicle (The Last Battle) Lewis had the professor say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” What Lewis admired most about Plato was his metaphysics. Plato believed that there are two real worlds, not one. There is the world of changing physical things that we apprehend by means of our senses, and there is the world of eternally true ideas that we apprehend by means of our minds. Plato was looking for stable things in a world of change; he found this stability in Being in contrast with becoming, in forms or ideas in contrast with matter or particulars, in the invisible and eternal in contrast with the visible and the temporal.

I found a blog with an article called “Unshakeable Reality” that considers this contrast between the shadow and solid reality in The Great Divorce with teaching from the Scripture. From that blog:
“Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:26-29). We dwell among “things that are being shaken,” but are receiving “a kingdom which cannot be shaken.” St. Paul does with shaking what Lewis does with solid. It is the less solid, the less stable, which can be shaken. Or, as St. Paul says, “the things that are made.” It is the things that are merely “created” that can be shaken. Only the uncreated remains. It is beyond understanding, but the promise of the fathers (and here in the Scriptures) is that in Christ we are to become “uncreated by grace.” God alone is “uncreated.” But by His grace, we become partakers of His uncreated life (which alone is unshakeable).

This blog made me re-think my understanding of what Lewis was trying to communicate in The Great Divorce. The contrast between shadow and solid reality in that story was not to reject or despise the created order or physical realm. The opposite is true. In the preface Lewis writes:

But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.

Creation is included in the description of the landscape of the Heavenly realm, including details such as grass, apples and a river with a waterfall. Near the end of the story there is a procession that came from a nearby forest, and at the centre of all the commotion was woman named Sarah Smith. She was a person of no importance on earth, but someone special in Heaven. In addition to angels in Saint Sarah’s procession, there were also children singing a song of beauty, and animals. Among the animals were dozens of cats, countless number of dogs, birds and horses. Confused, Lewis asks his spiritual mentor if this woman kept a zoo. His teacher answers, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.” (Musician Phil Woodward has set this scene to music: http://www.ghostsandspirits.net/the-album/saint-sarah/). Far from denying or rejecting the importance of the created realm, The Great Divorce affirms the beauty of the earth and presents a picture of salvation as being creation healed.


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