An Interview with Peter J. Schakel by Zach Kincaid
Peter Schakel's new book, Is Your Lord Large Enough? How C. S. Lewis Expands Our View of God (InterVarsity Press, 2008), is about image. "We can know people only through mental images," he says in the opening pages. Is this more true about a God who we haven't seen than our neighbor who we see everyday?
We have far less "data" about God and this creates more space to imagine him - to meditate on who he is and why he loves and what he does all day. How important is it, then, that we find guides to reflect aright on God and all his attributes - that provide a vision that expands God's size in ways that keep hooks back in the few things we do know about God (including the Scripture)?
C. S. Lewis does this. He takes what we know and builds on it. In the end, the landscape looks more vibrant and larger than our individualized, nationalized, materialized images of the divine could ever be.
I recently sent Peter Schakel a few questions along these lines (and others) and he obliged to answer.
ZK: The title of the book is a question . . . so let’s start there. Is your Lord large enough?
PJS: God is infinitely great, but my image of God, my conception of God, isn’t – and can’t be. The unifying thread running through this book is the importance of mental images in our Christian lives, and thus of the imagination, through which we form those images. In our finite humanness, we cannot comprehend God’s immensity, cannot take in God’s greatness. What we do is to form an image in our minds encompassing as much of God’s greatness as we can handle – and that image is inevitably too small.
ZK: So why do we shrink God, or . . . why do we need Lewis to help us make him more expansive?
PJS: Usually we don’t try to shrink God – it’s just impossible not to. What we need are reminders that we are prone to do it. We fall back on the same old images, the conceptions we’ve become accustomed to, and they begin to solidify. Lewis says in A Grief Observed that the images turn into idols, so that in effect we’re worshipping a god made of our own images instead of the true God. Our familiar images let us keep God in a box and give us a sense of control – we can manage this Lord, this “tame” version of God. Therefore we need reminders not to let ourselves rest content with small images of God. Just saying “God is great!” isn’t enough. We need to be jolted, surprised, and challenged, occasionally, to move us out of our comfort zones. Those jolts can come in many ways, in many forms – Lewis isn’t essential for it. In my own life Lewis’s writings have been particularly helpful, as for example Aslan’s wonderful words to Lucy in Prince Caspian, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
ZK: I recently went to a Bible study, of all places, and heard arguments that really deadened the reality of miracle - so much so that the virgin birth and the literal resurrection were on the table. You talk about miracle and the idea of God invading time and space. Don’t these demand imaginative thinking? Or maybe another way of saying it, doesn’t faith need imagination to survive this rational, reason-hungry culture that sticks its thumb out every time it needs a ride?
PJS: Yes, Lewis regarded imagination as crucial. I believe that except for salvation, imagination was the most important issue in Lewis’s thought and life. It’s important not just as an approach to literature and the other arts. It is at the heart of his approach to Christianity as well. Faith needs imagination, because imagination enables sight. In three stories – Prince Caspian, The Last Battle, and Till We Have Faces – Lewis reverses the old adage “Seeing is believing.” In Lewis’s thinking, it must be “Believing is seeing.” Those who believe are able to see, to see the effects of God invading time and space, to see the miraculous occurring in our world; those who do not believe cannot see. The revelation of God, both in the Bible and in Christianity generally, demands a response from the whole person, Lewis says; it “cannot be grasped by the intellect alone” (Reflections on the Psalms, chap. 11). Lewis fosters the role of imagination as a holistic response to God’s revelation—enabling people to “see” more clearly, enhancing their vision and way of visioning what the Christian life can and should be.
ZK: You mention in your chapter on the importance of church what Lewis might be saying in terms of a universal church and the local church. Can you expound on this? Did Lewis really spend a ton of time thinking about church and its placement as sanctuary or other traditional views?
PJS: Well, he certainly gave a fair amount of space to local churches in The Screwtape Letters. When he talks about “neighhbours sing[ing] out of tune, or hav[ing] boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes” (letter 2), I have to believe he had had such thoughts about local churches at one time or another. He definitely had mixed feelings about church attendance. There is a part of him that dislikes local churches. As he writes to a correspondent, “I share to the full – no words can say how strongly I share – that distaste for everything communal and collective which you describe in your husband. I really believe I would have come to Christianity much less reluctantly if it had not involved the Church.” But he believes he must attend church: “It is holy and commanded” (31 December 1953). “We must go to church. . . . For the Church is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities but the Body of Christ in which all members however different . . . must share the common life” (7 December 1950). I think that precisely because going to church was for Lewis a burden and duty rather than a pleasure, he gave a lot of thought to the local church and reasons why he ought to participate in its life despite his reluctance.
ZK: Insecurities with Lewis seem fairly distant compared to many of the insecurities that most of the world feels. Lewis had a home, job, and a satisfying career. Certainly the death of his mother and the death of Joy were heartbreaking and faith jerking episodes, no doubt. But it appears that the security that Lewis hunts and the security that your chapter suggests is an educated one - a bookish security - that may be construed as setting boundaries itself in order to mark out the limits one might go. Most of the world is looking for food to eat and shelter that doesn’t turn violent. Do you have thoughts on this packaged security?
PJS: You’re right, of course, that Lewis didn’t experience the actual insecurity of living on the street and not knowing where his next meal would come from. But that doesn’t mean his experiencing of insecurity was only bookish. In Lewis’s childhood, his father inculcated in him the belief that the family was constantly on the verge of financial ruin (Surprised by Joy, ch. 2). The fact that they were not close to being on the street does not matter to a child as much as the feeling. While he was a student at Oxford, providing a home for Janie Moore and her daughter on his student allowance from his father, they were near poverty – changing flats frequently to find something less expensive, tutoring to earn extra money. Again, even though they never ended up on the street or going hungry doesn’t mean he didn’t have a personal awareness of the kind of actual insecurity that much of the world has to endure. Lewis’s discussion of security sounds bookish because he was a well-educated writer and someone who didn’t like talking about his private life. If he had been a person who was comfortable with writing autobiographically, his discussion of insecurity might have sounded quite different.
ZK: I’ve always enjoyed the passage from A Grief Observed about the door not being locked but a silence that we so often misunderstand. Can you explain further about not understanding and instead trusting. This seems to dovetail with Lewis’s concepts of mystery and myth even as it touches down into our lives in a more direct way.
PJS: God does not always reveal God’s self to us fully and clearly (that’s part of the reason our images of God can never be large enough). That very lack of complete revelation makes trust necessary. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that, in common with the Orthodox tradition, Lewis “was acutely conscious of the hiddenness of God, of the inexhaustible mystery of the Divine” (in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, ed. David Mills, p. 58). Lewis talks about God’s “hiddenness” for example in Letters to Malcolm, letter 8, and Ware calls this “the leitmotif” of Till We Have Faces. Thus in Till We Have Faces Orual complains that the gods do not show themselves, do not give signs, and speak only in riddles; eventually she learns that she herself is closing her eyes to evidences of divine presence, ignoring the signs sent by the gods. Myth is the perfect way to deal with the hidden divinity, because myth itself both hides and reveals. Lewis’s stories can teach us the need for trust, and how to trust, if we open our eyes to what the myths are revealing to us.
ZK: Your chapter “Room for Doubt” brings to mind Tumnus’ uncertainty of Lucy’s home being “Spare Oom.” I like to think of it as a room that may lead to a deeper faith, a larger magic, that is. Why is this feared? Is it because doubts may lead to no faith? The Church seems to think this way at times. Why does Lewis seem to embrace doubt? It seems to be more than his personal experience. Maybe the invocation to curiosity?
PJS: Maybe it’s a result of a tendency to use “doubt” as a contrast to “faith” and “belief.” They are not in fact opposites. We can believe and still have doubts. To doubt and question can be evidences of a living, active, honest faith (or search for faith), in contrast to a passive or non-growing faith. Lewis believed in intellectual honesty and rigorous critical thought in all sectors of life, including religion, even if they lead one to reject Christianity, as he did for over a decade; he came back to Christianity after he found answers to the questions he raised about it. It seems clear that his faith, when he returned to it, was stronger and deeper than it would have been without going through that questioning process. Lewis held that there is not only room for questions and doubts in an individual Christian’s life, but a need for them if growth is to occur. I like the way George MacDonald puts it: “A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest” (Lewis, ed., George MacDonald: An Anthology, no. 152).
ZK: Let’s talk death. Is it not the punishment for sin? Certainly the sting is deadened with the suffering of Jesus, as he harkens the Psalmist, but death is still the end of what we know and the beginning of what we don’t know. It seems that we often spiritualize death so that it makes sense - souls without the tie to gravity - but Lewis, if we take The Great Divorce as an example, is really calling for something concrete - more real than the present shadows. Paul takes this tack as well. On our good days we might say this, but most of the time we are scared silly. No? How do we build a robust confidence about the solidity of the heavens?
PJS: Lewis believed that “we were not made for [death]; we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder” (God in the Dock, 150). It is punishment for sin, but at the same time it is the path to a realm in which there is no sin or death. Death, Lewis says, is the passageway to the true home we have been longing for all our lives. It is “an important part” of the process of our perfection (Mere Christianity, bk. 4, chap.10). You’re right about our tendency to spiritualize death. It seems to me that one way to fight that tendency, and to rebuild confidence in the solidity of heaven, is by the images through which we try to conceptualize heaven. And Lewis provides very good help here, in The Great Divorce, yes, but also in The Last Battle. It offers an amazingly “solid” heaven, where colors are more vibrant than in our world, and tastes are exquisite. “It was a deeper country [than the old Narnia]: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” The images are so vivid and that “world” is so desirable that most readers say with Jewel the Unicorn, “I have come home at last! . . . I belong here.”