I'm feeling a bit sad thinking of leaving The Great Divorce for a season. I've truly enjoyed sharing my thoughts and hearing other people's comments. I've especially enjoyed getting to know The Great Divorce again, seeing things I hadn't seen before, and being impressed again by the book's power.
This, my last blog of the series, will focus on some of the book's limitations, some of my doctrinal differences with Lewis, and the personal meaning and value the book has acquired for me. Some readers may find parts of this week's blog a bit negative and nitpicky. But I hope you will not exaggerate the importance of my nitpicking but will instead view it in the context of all the positive things I've said about the book.
I'm tempted to do what Lewis sometimes does and invite you to skip any sections you find unappealing or unhelpful. But be sure to read at least from the section I've called "Back to the title" on to the end of this week's blog.
The book's limitations
Yes, The Great Divorce has a few limitations. I say "limitations" rather than "weaknesses" because no book can do everything, and any book will certainly do some things better than other things. For me, the book's limitations include its oversimplified characters (maybe necessarily so), its emphasis on characters who fail to enter heaven, its episodic structure, some questionable doctrines, and some imbalance (I think) in its picture of heavenly joy.
Wisely, Lewis chose to focus on a dominant problem and a single issue or set of related issues with each character. That's part of what makes the book so effective. But it's good to remember that real people are more complicated than the ones we meet in The Great Divorce. Or maybe another way to put it is that if the characters in the book were real people and we were able to spend more than a few pages with them, we'd likely find more dimensions and complications than are revealed in the book as it stands.
Perhaps a more serious limitation is the book's emphasis on failing to enter heaven. Of all the visitors from hell, only one that we know of (the man with the lizard) chooses to enter into joy. Possibly another one or two do as well. But the book emphasizes the tragic inclination to choose something other than joy and submission to God. Some readers have found the book frightening or even depressing--apparently including Lewis himself. In a letter he wrote the following: "I was rather frightened myself [by the book]--condemned out of my own mouth" (The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, volume 2:790).
But I'm sure the negative emphasis is intentional. Lewis's aim in the book was apparently to wake us up to the seriousness of our spiritual condition and especially to the hard fact that misery will inevitably result from clinging to our sins and even from insisting on our "rights" and our dignity. Apparently Lewis wants us to worry--just as he has himself as a character in the book worry--about our own choices and our own spiritual state. That worry may motivate repentance. My main response to the book's emphasis is that it serves a useful purpose but that we also need other books to remind us of other important truths--as, in fact, many of Lewis's other books do.
When I call the book "episodic," I mean it is made up of episodes that are somewhat loosely strung together and that could, in at least some cases, have been put in a different order. Lewis recognized that the book was somewhat episodic: to a degree "the dialogues succeed one another arbitrarily and might have come in any other order and might have gone on a longer or shorter time." Then he says: "Spiritual unity I hope it has: but a book needs musical or architectural unity as well" (Collected Letters 2:648).
I believe the book does have spiritual unity--and a good deal of architectural unity as well. Despite the episodic nature of much of the book, it has something of a plot structure. The earlier episodes are significant but less intensely engaging than the later ones. As the character Lewis begins to question what is going on and to worry over issues of salvation and damnation, he meets--almost exactly half way through the book--a teacher and guide, George Macdonald, who can respond to his concerns. The episodes that follow raise serious questions--why would God condemn a loving mother to hell; should we pity those who choose to be damned--on which Macdonald comments.
The final series of episodes bring the book to a climax as Lewis's questions rise in intensity and as important truths are revealed in response. Lewis learns that God does not arbitrarily condemn anyone to hell--in essence, people do that to themselves. He learns that the mother who wants her son doesn't love too much but too little; that no natural loves--in fact no elements in our natures as they stand--are holy in themselves, but that all of them can be raised to a heavenly state if they are submitted to God. (As Macdonald tells Lewis: "Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death." And elsewhere: "Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried." Lewis has Macdonald explain that if the lizard, i.e., lust, can be turned into something glorious, we can hardly imagine what motherly love might become if it is turned over to God.)
Finally, with the Tragedian and the Dwarf, Lewis learns of the dangers of pitying the damned--the implication being that God, in his wisdom, mercy, and justice, allows people finally to choose misery or joy and that we should not let the wrong choices of others prevent us from choosing joy. This climactic revelation is followed by a kind of vision in which Lewis is shown, in symbolic form, the essential nature of our existence: our eternal selves are like chess players; our choices are the moves we make on the chessboard of time. Then after this vision, the sun begins to rise over the mountains of heaven--with Lewis afraid he is not ready for it--and suddenly he wakes up to find himself back in England of the 1940s, back, that is, on the chessboard of time, working out his eternal destiny through his earthly choices.
And so the book is, in fact, only superficially episodic. There really is an overall shape and unity to the book, especially when we focus on the character Lewis and his journey not only toward understanding human existence generally but toward waking up to the true nature of his own life.
The limitations I've just noted are mainly ones Lewis himself recognized and maybe are necessary to the purposes of the book. I see a few further limitations that arise from fundamental differences between my understanding of Christian doctrine and Lewis's (as if the two of us belong in the same sentence!).
While almost all of Lewis's points can be translated into terms compatible with Latter-day Saint doctrine, it's good to remember that Lewis and Latter-day Saints differ in important ways. Lewis believed that God (though a specific personal being) created everything out of nothing and is absolutely and eternally different from any of his creatures, including us. Latter-day Saints, by contrast, hold that God became God ("As we are, God once was; as God is, we may become"); that he organized the worlds out of already existing materials; that even our own essential natures are eternal and uncreated, certainly not created out of nothing; and that, though perfect in wisdom, love, power, and goodness, God is the same kind of being we are (as the apostle Paul puts it, "We are the offspring of God" [Acts 17:29]).
This fundamental difference--at least part of which could be summed up in Lewis's emphasis on God as our creator and on Latter-day Saints' emphasis on God as our Father--leads to subtle differences in how we might understand some of the issues raised in The Great Divorce. In many cases, though, the differences will be negligible.
Related to Lewis's view of God is his conception of time. Though he acknowledges that his view does not have a clear basis in the Bible (see Collected Letters 2:775-76: "so far as I know, there are no 'unescapable texts' in Scripture supporting my view of Time"), he holds to the traditional, especially medieval, Christian view, which in turn derives from some strands of Greek philosophy. This view holds that time is essentially an illusion, that in some sense all that we see happening in time has always already happened, and that God--who is outside of time (and outside of space and material conditions in general)--sees all that we think of as happening through time in an eternally unchanging present. I believe Lewis leaves room for ways in which this view could accommodate the reality of choice and change, but he doesn't attempt an explanation, except for the symbolic image of chess players near the end of the book.
In the course of tackling the issue of time and eternity, Lewis has Macdonald try to reconcile freedom of choice, predestination, and universalism (the possibility of universal salvation). The real George Macdonald would probably not have said some of the things Lewis has him say in The Great Divorce. Lewis was aware that Macdonald did not believe in predestination: that he rejected, in other words, the view that God, from all eternity, has selected some for salvation and some for damnation. In fact, Macdonald raised the possibility that God's love might finally bring about the salvation of all of his children. For Lewis, the main problem with Macdonald's view is that it underestimates how crucial human choice is to any possibility of eternal happiness. Some, Lewis believed, will eternally reject the possibility of joy, and that makes hell a necessary, eternal reality. Yet, with his view of time, Lewis also believed that God knows--in a sense, sees, from all eternity--the choices we will make and so in a sense has already determined our destiny. Hence, Lewis allows for a kind of predestination, though a kind he doesn't believe we can currently understand.
One problem with Lewis's view--a problem he has Macdonald acknowledge-- is that "every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys [our] knowledge of Freedom." And the feeling that freedom is only an illusion can lead us to despair or to apathy. Yet, though I believe Lewis's view of time is flawed, even in ways he would not have acknowledged, I find one of the ways he tries to convey it--the chessboard image--appealing. Lewis has Macdonald quote the scripture that says we are "gods" and then uses the chessboard image to suggest that we are much more than the temporal beings we appear to be. Though we may appear to ourselves and to each other like chess pieces on the chessboard of time, we are in reality eternal beings making choices with eternal consequences. Our choices express our "inmost nature." In a sense, we live simultaneously in time and in eternity--or maybe put better, what we think of as time is our temporarily limited view of the true nature of our existence, limited purposely so that we can experience faith, choice, and independent action without being overwhelmed by too much awareness. It is almost (Latter-day Saints would say) as if a veil of forgetfulness has been put over our minds.
Did Lewis misrepresent the nature of heavenly joy?
Besides (according to Lewis) being beyond our full understanding, the ultimate nature of time, eternity, freedom, and destiny is maybe not the concern most relevant to our daily choices, and so most of the book focuses on other things.
But there is one other issue of more present concern on which I think Lewis may be wrong. As the episode of the Tragedian and the Dwarf comes to an end, Lewis suggests that we must not accept the invitation of the damned to pity them, that we must not allow those who finally choose to be miserable to pollute the perfect joy of heaven by manipulating us into feeling miserable along with them.
On the one hand, I think Lewis is making a profoundly true and important point. Yes, self-chosen misery, especially the kind of self-pity displayed by the Tragedian/Dwarf, invites others to join in an unhealthy state of mutually self-destructive co-dependence. Yes, we must resist that invitation. And yes, we show true compassion through the "action of pity," as Lewis puts it, rather than through the "passion of pity," at least the kind of pity the Tragedian/Dwarf is asking for. Still, when Lewis has Sarah Smith say she cannot love what her husband has become and, with the lines "nothing can trouble her joy," suggests that, once the damned have made their final choice, we must forget about them, I think he is overlooking a third possibility: besides either being sucked into the misery of the damned or cutting the strings and letting them go, we can continue to experience godly love and godly sorrow, even for those who have chosen eternal misery.
My difference with Lewis here is probably a matter of emphasis, maybe even a question of tone. In this book, at least, Lewis's picture of heavenly joy seems to me a bit too cheery, even superficial, and maybe, in the end, too focused on one's own joy. I think Lewis does a better job elsewhere: for instance, showing Aslan capable of tears in the Chronicles of Narnia. Maybe in The Great Divorce Lewis wanted to make an important point emphatically and clearly and so exaggerated or oversimplified it a bit. Or maybe he wanted us to understand that goodness consists of much more than indulging in tender emotions (here as in other books, Lewis makes love more an action than an emotion). Still, I believe he gives an incomplete view of godly joy and love.
In one scriptural account, Enoch sees the Lord weep, and he too wonders how the divine nature can be compatible with sorrow. Of those doomed to misery, the Lord asks in response, "wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?" (Moses 7:37). It appears that God's joy somehow encompasses grief for those who are lost--they are, after all, his children, not simply creatures who didn't "turn out." To me, it seems that such joy--encompassing compassion and grief, along with stern justice--is deeper and more truly godly than a joy that focuses entirely on the positives and says, in effect, "Well, they made their choice. I need to not let it bother me."
Back to the title
In the first blog in this series, I explained where the title came from. It was Lewis's response to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell--or more exactly, to the idea that we can somehow embrace both good and evil. No, says Lewis. We must make a final, decisive choice. If we are to experience joy, we must let go of all that is not heavenly. The "divorce" of the title is thus a great divorce between good and evil. Or perhaps (since this divorce must take place within our own souls) it is our own divorce--our absolute separation--from all that is not godly. The title also points to the great separation between the saved and the damned that will finally be revealed as time fades away and human choices become final. Those who have submitted themselves to God will experience heavenly joy and ultimate reality forever; those who have refused to submit themselves will be locked up forever in their own minds and will have lost, not only heavenly joy and reality, but the realizing of their own potential.
Is Lewis right about this ultimate "great divorce"? In part, but perhaps not entirely. I believe the eternities will be more dynamic, more variegated, and more hopeful than this "great separation" idea suggests--there will be progression, degrees of glory, and ultimately very few condemned to eternal misery. (I'm grateful for Boyd K. Packer's assurance that, "Save for those few who defect to perdition after having known a fulness, there is no habit, no addiction, no rebellion, no transgression, no offense exempted from the promise of complete forgiveness.") Maybe a further dose of George Macdonald's views would make Lewis's picture closer to the truth.
Yet I also believe that Lewis's stark picture of our choices and their consequences is helpful--maybe like those scriptures that warn us of the horrific consequences of sin. As long as this stark picture doesn't make us unhealthily anxious, as long as it is balanced by an assurance of God's love, it can help produce "godly sorrow" that "worketh repentance unto salvation" (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is crucial for us to recognize that our eternal condition will depend on our choices and that we cannot forever "procrastinate the day of our repentance." One of the most valuable elements of The Great Divorce is its emphasis on what we must do now: "There is no meantime. . . . We are not playing now. . . . There is no other day. All days are present now." These lines from the book remind us that the choices we are making now--today, this very moment--are creating the future we will experience.
That leads me to some closing words on the book's value and impact. Despite its limitations, The Great Divorce remains one of my favorite books by Lewis, one worth rereading at least every few years. The episodes and descriptions are vivid and memorable. The style is delightful, ranging from beautifully crafted paragraphs to brief statements packed with wit and insight. Though we spend only a few pages with each character, Lewis's analysis is so penetrating and perceptive that we feel we truly know the characters and find it almost impossible to forget them. The book encompasses a range of emotions, including humor, horror, anxiety, hope, compassion, frustration, and transcendent joy. Its symbolism possesses mythic depth and power. And it has brilliant insights about the most important eternal and earthly matters, presented with startling clarity.
The book's greatest value, I believe, is its power to provoke self-awareness and a desire to change. I see my own flaws, to one degree or another, in most of the characters, and Lewis succeeds in making those flaws so ridiculous, so obviously destructive, in some cases so horrifying or so hauntingly pathetic, that I feel an intense desire to be rid of them. By his emphasis on total submission, on the need to undergo a kind of death in order to experience a resurrection of all that can be good in me, Lewis encourages me to turn to God humbly and penitently and seek that perfect submission. There is much in my character, habits, and desires that I have a hard time letting go of, but reading The Great Divorce keeps the need to do more letting go present in my mind.
And though much of the book emphasizes the characters' failure to submit, the occasional moments of submission and their glorious results encourage hope and increase my desire to change. In the last pages of another of his books--Mere Christianity, originally written for radio broadcast in the early 1940s, shortly before he embarked on The Great Divorce--Lewis affirms that giving up ourselves will make possible the unfolding of our true selves. "But," Lewis concludes, "there must be a real giving up of the self. . . . Your real, new self . . . will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him," that is, for Christ. "Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in."
With its memorable specific examples and engaging symbolism, The Great Divorce can be read as an expanded commentary on that passage, translated into narrative form.
Last call for comments
With only a few days now before another book will replace The Great Divorce as the focus of this online book club, I hope many of you will add your comments. Do you agree with my assessment of The Great Divorce? Are there passages you'd like to comment on or anything you'd like to share about how you have connected with the book or how it has affected you?
In addition to making this last call for comments, I want to thank all of you who have participated for the enjoyable, instructive, and inspiring time we've spent together.