The Great Divorce and the Challenge of Faith

I’m grateful that C.S. Lewis, in the preface to his book The Great Divorce, makes this disclaimer: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course — or I intended it to have — a moral.  But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”[i] It’s a relief that the book is not to be taken as a theological treatise or construed as an argument for any particular conception of Heaven or Hell (or Purgatory). I see too much in its pages that challenges me in the present moment to worry about any eschatological implications. The theme of The Great Divorce, as the title implies, is the separation and contrast between two dissimilar, incompatible things. Lewis wrote the book as something of a response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which Blake wrote in the late 18th century in his characteristic blustery, impulsive Romantic style. One hundred and fifty years later, Lewis, finding himself and his English countrymen immersed in a schizophrenic cultural blend of the spent remains of Romantic ideals and a rigid scientific modernism, determined it was time for a reiteration of what English journalist (and Lewis influence) G.K. Chesterton would have called common sense. Lewis introduces his story by patiently explaining to a nearly insane culture that “[w]e are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre… A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.”[ii] So, in this book he sets about the task not of defining Heaven and Hell per se, but of sketching and painting the human experience of these concepts — in other words, describing how Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell, might look and feel to ordinary people like you and me.

Inspired by an unnamed American science fiction writer, Lewis borrows and develops the idea that Heaven as a spiritual world is more ‘real’ than Earth; the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of Heaven overwhelm the senses with their glory and human beings by contrast are relatively insubstantial. Lewis travels through the heavenly country as a character in his own story and describes such experiences as walking over blades of grass which hurt and pierce his feet; a mere leaf is so heavy it’s impossible for him to lift. At one point, he finds himself walking on top of a small stream (!) in his search for a more comfortable, if less efficient, pathway through the forested valley.

As he wanders, he observes and overhears many conversations between the Bright People (the citizens of the heavenly valley) and the ghostlike beings with whom he rode into the country on an ordinary-looking city bus. The Bright People have come to meet their friends and relatives, whom they try to convince to make a further journey with them “to the mountains” (to Heaven proper, perhaps). Their dialogue, remonstrations, and arguments make up the bulk of the narrative. I recognized amongst the bus passengers quite a few people that I feel I know personally: 1) the Big Ghost who meets one of his former earthly ‘partners in crime’ and is incensed that God’s view of ultimate justice differs from his own; 2) the Bishop Ghost who plays at theological games and can’t be bothered with anything so simple as childlike faith; 3) the Hard-Bitten Ghost, a depressed pessimist with his head sunk in conspiracy theories and an allergy to responsible engagement with the world; 4) two female Ghosts who have spent their earthly lives attempting to control their loved ones and who take offense that God will not ultimately give them ‘possession’ of others’ wills and souls; and 5) the Tragedian, a soul in two bodies who attempts (and fails) to blackmail his former lover with his pain and suffering.

060308_lead_new.jpgEach of these characters, including Lewis, struggles to decide whether to trust the heavenly citizens’ testimony of the goodness of God, His justice, and His love. Each visitor’s encounter with his or her transformed loved one challenges the way in which he/she had framed his/her human experience on Earth. Lewis listens and watches as each one insists on Heaven on his/her own terms, and each one ultimately turns away from Truth in the form of a renewed, glorified relationship with the Bright Person. The humility required to trust in the witnesses of Glory and to undergo the transformation necessary to stay and live in the valley proves to be too high a price to pay.

I first read The Great Divorce about 15 years ago, before my conversion (from evangelicalism) to the Catholic faith. I remember marveling at Lewis’ creativity and masterful dialogue, and at that time, I couldn’t resist interpreting his mentions of Heaven and Hell in a literal, allegorical fashion. I was very concerned about correct theology in my Protestant days (looking through the ‘Bible-only’ lens, of course), and Lewis’ portrayal of some in-between place (Purgatory? *Gasp!) put me off. I remember enjoying it as a fantasy, but I don’t recall the book having challenged or changed me in any way. 

However, I recently joined a literary study group whose focus is the writings of the Inklings (early 20th century English writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield among others), and together we recently reread and discussed The Great Divorce. At the same time, in my Communion & Liberation School of Community, we’re reading Father Luigi Giussani’s Is It Possible to Live This Way?[iii], and Fr. Giussani’s keen insights have illumined Lewis’ fantastical images for me in surprising and challenging ways.

Fr. Giussani writes that of the two ways of gaining knowledge (1: empirical observation/sensory input and 2: indirect knowledge through a mediator, i.e. through persons, parents, teachers, books, etc.), it is indirect knowledge, i.e. that which comes to us through trust in a witness, which is at the core of human culture and foundational to our existence: “Listen, what’s more important: the evidence or this knowledge mediated through a witness? Get rid of this knowledge through mediation and you wipe out all human culture, all of it, because all human culture is based on the fact that one person begins with what another person has discovered and then goes forward from there. If you couldn’t reasonably do this, the ultimate representation of reason, which is culture, couldn’t exist… Culture, history, and society are based on this type of knowledge called faith, knowledge through faith, indirect knowledge, knowledge of reality though the mediation of a witness[iv] (emphasis mine). 

Fr. Giussani thus radically reorganizes the categories of the faith vs. reason debate. Since faith is the foundation of our knowledge about the world, faith is the most reasonable choice to make when evaluating the testimony of someone you know and trust — especially if the encounter is exceptional in some way. He continues: “From a rational point of view, it’s clear that if you become certain that another person knows what he or she is saying and doesn’t want to deceive, then logically you should trust, because if you don’t trust you go against yourself, against the judgment you formulated that that person knows what he or she says and doesn’t want to deceive you.”[v] For Lewis’ fellow bus travelers to the heavenly valley, faith is actually the most reasonable response to the extraordinary encounters they are having, but in denying and rejecting the new vision, the visitors are acting in a most tragically irrational, unreasonable way. The human bond of trust they had with their now Bright friend or loved one should have enabled them to trust the information they were receiving and to allow themselves to be led by that love and trust into the mountains. But alas — they could not overcome their pride, their bitterness, their greed — that is, their insistence that Heaven’s infinite glory conform to their finite conceptions. And they go against themselves.

Fr. Giussani writes that as each one of us encounters Jesus Christ, we must respond in faith to Him — not because His holiness or glory demand it, but because our reasonable faculties demand it, since He created us for a destiny of eternal happiness with Him: “The only rational thing is the ‘yes’. Why? Because the reality that is proposed corresponds to the nature of our heart more than any of our images. It corresponds to our thirst for happiness, which constitutes the reason for living, the nature of our ‘I’, the need for truth and happiness. Indeed, Christ corresponds to this more than does any image we can construct.”[vi] Fr. Giussani and Lewis certainly agree that Christianity is not about dull, enforced conformity to arbitrary rules that abrogate our freedom; on the contrary, the Christian life is a relationship filled with joy and love, an exercise of our free choice based on reason.

The final encounter Lewis describes in The Great Divorce is with the glorified soul of George MacDonald, a Christian fantasy writer of the previous generation whom Lewis deeply admired. Lewis puts his most profound words into MacDonald’s mouth, and he explains the entire vision of the book thus:

… [B]oth good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in the town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven’, and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.[vii]

Our eternal life in Christ doesn’t begin when we die; St. Paul says that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Christian faith and hope aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking; they constitute here-and-now “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) which “does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). Who we are and how we live determines our destiny; at the same time, our destiny determines who we are and how we live. The choice between Heaven and Hell faces us every moment of the day. May God grant each of us the courage to put our faith in the witness of Jesus and His Spirit: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).

[i] Lewis, C.S.  The Great Divorce.  New York: HarperCollins edition, 2001. Preface, p. x. (Original publication – Great Britain: G. Bles, 1946.)[ii] Lewis, Preface, p. viii.[iii] Giussani, Fr. Luigi.  Is It Possible to Live This Way? Volume 1 – Faith.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.[iv] Giussani, p. 9.

[v] Giussani, p. 24.

[vi] Giussani, p. 39.

[vii] Lewis, p. 69.

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