Wednesday, September 29, 2004

C.S. Lewis

How can I talk about what I owe to C.S. Lewis? He's the man who opened the world, for me. Who made it possible for me to be a Buddhist, who rescued me from an airless, sterile materialism. He set out to rescue me. "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." That was me. Eustace. And while Lewis made me indignant by mocking him roundly, it was clearly himself he was mocking, as well as Eustace, as well as me. He had lived there, he was saying, and now he lived somewhere else. How could that be? Where could "else" be? How could there be an "else"?

I imagine to Lewis I would be only a half-success, since I couldn't quite follow him all the way to Christianity. I still find some pieces of Christianity -- which I think are essential pieces, integral pieces -- impossible to swallow. How could a good God deliberately make so much evil? It's a silly question, in a way. I wouldn't begin to know how to create even a tiny good ex nihilo: how then would I know how much evil it ought to take? But still, it's a question that pulls me up short. And then there's the insistence on making one single, real historical event the pivot of all human history. No. Can't see it. Though again, arguments seem futile. Lewis (or was it Chesterton?) remarked that this pivot-of-history story had the improbability, the odd compelling shape, of reality, and that's true enough. But that's hardly an argument.

Lewis, at his best -- when he didn't get carried away by his own rhetoric -- always started with unblinking observation. The facts of his own mind. And there were two facts that materialism didn't explain at all well. First, what we Buddhists would call "the truth of suffering." The pervasiveness of the sense of loss, of distortion, of dissatisfaction. The sense of being wrong in the world. And second, the experience of joy. If the materialists were correct, then the pleasures of the senses and the pleasures of society should be the highest pleasures available. But in fact there are pleasures wholly unrelated to either one. The joy of watching distant mountains emerge from a misty horizon at dawn. The joy of touching minds with something plainly unhuman but plainly sentient, that undeniable whisper of luminous thought that you can not-quite-hear at odd times. The joy of watching an infant sleeping in a carrier on a bus -- no one you'll ever know. To Lewis, this suffering and joy meant -- beyond argument, since it was simple basic experience -- that the world was bigger than the people who were supposed to know said it was. More things in heaven and earth. And these things were not -- not to Lewis, anyway, and not to me -- occasional, trifling experiences. These were the experiences our days were made of, the stuff that made us want to live or die. A theory of the world that left these things out was, for us, completely useless.

Lewis started over. Instead of trying to come up with elaborate materialist explanations for these experiences -- which can be contrived, though with considerable effort -- he backed up and said, well, what if we have these experiences simply because they correspond to reality? What if we really *are* wrong from the start, somehow? And what if we experience a beautiful mountain as if it was the expression of a huge and overwhelming sentience just because it *is* the expression of a huge and overwhelming sentience?

I read Lewis over and over; there's probably only one writer I've read more (whom I'll write about anon.) He never claimed to have an argument that settled the existence of God and the divinity of Christ: one day he just knew it was true, and that he'd always known it was true, and that it was time to stop running from it and believe what he already in fact believed.

If I had been raised Christian, rather than athiest, I probably would have followed Lewis to that point too. But I wasn't, and I didn't. The existence of God and the divinity of Jesus weren't obvious to me, and they never have become so. But the existence of the numinous *is* obvious to me. It would take twenty years, after realizing this, to find my own path into that place, the path of the Dharma. But I would never have found it, I think, if it hadn't been for Lewis.

Lewis had faults. Quite a few of them. He was sexist. He could be a bully in an argument -- he by no means always picked on someone his own size. His genius for generalization and neatly summing up has found a terrifying amplifier in certain of his evangelical followers, in whom it becomes a habit of glib ignorant dismissiveness. Not a perfect man. But I have no sense of incongruity when, in my visualizations, he appears in the refuge tree, among the teachers of other lineages.

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