3.27.2009

Aslan and Shasta


Whatever you think of C.S. Lewis, I think his brilliance in The Chronicles of Narnia is in the way he depicts encounters with Aslan. Something probably resonates with people even if they don’t realize that the great lion is a type of Christ, but now having that understanding, I think it says something about what Lewis was able to accomplish that I get goose bumps every time I read them.

The following is the encounter between Aslan and Shasta in The Horse and His Boy as Shasta is riding alone on a lonely path through a dark, foggy forest. He had just begun to feel sorry for himself and cry for loneliness and disappointment when he realized something large, but which he could not see, was walking beside him.

*****
“Who are you?” he said, scarcely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said The Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.

“Are you—are you a giant?” asked Shasta.

“You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.”

“I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not—not something dead, are you? Oh please—please do go away. What harm have I ever done to you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!”

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of this escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had anything to eat.

“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.

“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta

“There was only one lion,” said the Voice.

“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and –“

“There was only one lion: but he was swift of foot.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”

“It was I.”

“But what for?

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

“Who are you?” asked Shasta.

“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

The mist was turning from black and gray and from gray to white. This must have begun to happen some time ago, but while he had been talking to the Thing he had not been noticing anything else. Now, the whiteness around him became a shining whiteness; his eyes began to blink. Somewhere ahead he could hear birds singing. He knew the night was over at last. He could see the mane and ears and head of his horse quite easily now. A golden light fell on them from the left. He thought it was the sun.

He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful…

..But after one glance at the Lion’s face he slipped out of the saddle and fell at his feet. He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything.

3.16.2009

you can't judge a book by its title


If you saw a book on the shelf titled The Responsible Self: An Essay on Christian Moral Philosophy, aside from the fact that you probably would not pick it up to read it, you would probably think that it must be a dry book about duty. H. Richard Niebuhr has something else in mind altogether. You might think it dry, but you will not find dutiful.

First, who is H. Richard Niebuhr? Well, he is the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr! Ok…in spite of the fact that very few Christians I know have any clue who they are, the Niebuhr brothers—Reinhold especially—are considered some of the most influential American theologians of the 20th Century. Besides that, they are Germans from Missouri, which for a Berger automatically increases their awesomeness! His most well known book is Christ and Culture. He taught theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School for decades, and his work is considered one of the sources of post-liberal/narrative theology.

The Responsible Self (1963) is a collection of lectures he gave at University of Glasgow in 1960 and was published after his death in 1962. The basic ethic of this book might be illustrated in this quote: “Responsibility affirms: ‘God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action’” (p. 126).

Let me explain. There are two dominant ways people talk about what a person ‘ought’ to do. The first has to do with purposes and goals. As a system of ethics, this is called teleological ethics because it defines the good in terms of its end/purpose (Grk, telos = end/goal). It would be over-simplified to say this is the ethic of “the ends justify the means,” but for the sake of space, I will do it anyway. The second ethic has to do with law or legislation. As a system, this is called deontological ethics (Grk, deon = obligation/duty). There is a law that binds us. When you hear people argue for an “absolute moral law” or by non-absolutists like Kant who said, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law,” you are hearing this view of ethics.

Niebuhr is not rejecting either one of these outright; he merely says neither one of them is adequate in itself:

“What these debates suggest to us is that as helpful as the fundamental images are which we employ in understanding and directing ourselves they remain images and hypotheses, not truthful copies of reality, and that something of the real lies beyond the borders of the image” (pp. 55-56).

In other words, each view has something right about it but suffers some limitation. It is for this reason that Niebuhr suggests the ethic of response, saying the right thing to do is the fitting response to the things being done to or demanded of us. For the Christian, this comes from understanding what God is doing to us or demanding of us in any given moment. He summarizes:

“In summary…we may say that purposiveness seeks to answer the question: “What shall I do?” by raising a prior question: “What is my goal, ideal, or telos?” Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: “What is the law and what is the first law of my life?” Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: “What is going on?” (p. 60).

Therefore, what is fitting or appropriate for the situation alone is the right or good thing to do. This will sound to some like some kind of moral relativism—and in some sense, it is—but might it actually help to make sense of the ethics of the Bible? We have all run into the difficulties of taking the Bible as “an absolute law” or maintaining the truthfulness of competing demands. I do not think I need to explain what those difficulties are. I only propose the question:

Does Niebuhr’s ethic of response help to make sense of Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son at God’s command, why God can ask his people to kill their enemies in Joshua and love them in Matthew, and why Paul can say things like “the law came to an end when faith came” or “to walk in a manner worthy of the Gospel” or “whatever is not done in faith is sin”?

Tell me what you think!

3.10.2009

Now Open

This will be your home for regular digestion of the writings of dead people. Whether ancient theologians and philosophers or the recently departed, there are a lot of figures and works that people should be familiar with but are not. Our hope is that we can provide accessible and occasionally entertaining summaries, reviews, and even translations of these works and give you a reason to put down that self-help or how-to book and read with us.