Whilst in general, I am a big advocate for how members of the growing Christian deconstruction and exvangelical movements are trying to think through their faith for themselves (as I discuss in this post), my support comes with a big caution.
That caution is this: don’t become the measure of God.
When deconstructing or questioning models of Christianity of any kind, we need to be careful not to project an image of God that is actually … well, ourselves but with enhanced qualities and the bad bits cut out. We need to avoid making an idol that’s us but photoshopped.
Not sure what I mean by that?
Let me give you an example.
What is Love? God is Love
I recently saw an image on Instagram (of all places) that described a particular approach to reading the Bible. It had an image of an extremely angry, religious man and another more peaceful looking person. The peaceful looking person said to the angry, religious looking man:
The difference between me and you is that you let your interpretation of the Bible define love, I let love define my interpretation of the Bible.
Whilst this sounds great on a surface level, and I definitely agree that it’s important to critique what certain angry, religious types might have got wrong in their definitions of ‘love’ (as I do in this post) … there’s still a problem.
Yes, there are similarities in the definitions of what ‘love’ is across cultures, but there are also plenty of variations. In some cultures, for example, the most loving thing to do when a dog is suffering is to shoot it in the head. In other cultures, they can’t imagine anything so brutal being loving.
For Christians, we believe that the truest revelation of what love is can be found in the life, words and actions of Jesus. He was the physical embodiment of love (check this post for more on this).
The problem with the image from Instagram then, is this: to say that love is your standard for reading the Bible but that your idea of love isn’t rooted in the descriptions of Jesus presented in the Bible, is then to judge the Bible on a conception of love based on … what?
Probably your own personal preferences on what love should be.
C.S. Lewis and Christian Deconstruction
For C.S. Lewis, this is dangerous ground. For Lewis, we shouldn’t be conforming love to our preferences. Instead, we are the ones who should be conforming to what love is as rooted in something in his book The Abolition of Man he calls ‘the Tao’ – which he defines as:
It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.
Neither is it a stretch to assume that, though he doesn’t make this explicit (The Abolition of Man wasn’t written with Christian audiences in mind), for C.S. Lewis this ‘Tao’ which gives absolute value to concepts like ‘love’ and ‘goodness’ is found in Jesus. In the definition of the ‘Tao’ just given, this can be seen in his use of the heavily-loaded word ‘The Way’ – which in a Christian context is used to refer to how Jesus provides access to a knowledge of God the Father:
I am the way, the truth and the light – no one gets to the Father except through me.John 14:6.
For C.S. Lewis, it was deeply worrying to see how students in British schools were no longer being taught to respect absolutes. Instead, they were taught that certain concepts such as ‘love’, ‘beauty’, ‘goodness’ etc. didn’t have any basis of value outside of what people or cultures ascribed to them.
More accessibly, C.S. Lewis also explores this issue in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe where he introduces us to a lion called Aslan (representing Jesus) and in doing so teaches us about God’s character – an absolute for which only certain responses from us are fitting – as well as the dangers of trying to make God’s character conform to us and not the other way around.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: A Summary
Not read this Christian children’s classic or watched any of the film adaptations? Let me help you out with a quick summary.
The story takes place during the second world war. Four children, two brothers and two sisters, are evacuated to a big country house to get away from bombing. The house is old and mysterious and strange, with many rooms to explore. One day, the youngest – a girl called Lucy – discovers a wardrobe which turns out to be an entryway to the land of Narnia.
This land is under the curse of the White Witch so that it is always winter but never Christmas there.
Later, the third oldest of the children, Edmund, also finds himself in Narnia and is met by the witch herself. She gives him enchanted Turkish delight so that he will want to come back to Narnia again, hopefully with all of his siblings, so that she can kill them all to prevent the prophecy that four humans – two kings and two queens – will reign over Narnia instead of her.
All four of the brothers and sisters do eventually find themselves in Narnia, but only Edmund takes the witch’s side. The others become loyal to the rightful king – Aslan the lion – who is, of course, meant to represent Jesus.
In the end, Aslan breaks the witch’s curse and restores Edmund to his siblings by allowing the witch to kill him in Edmund’s place. Due to the fact that Aslan is innocent of any crime, Aslan comes back to life the following morning and joins the battle that will defeat the witch and her armies.
God’s Character As Portrayed Through Aslan
Why a Lion?
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has now become such a famous Christian classic that we can sometimes run the risk of reading it unquestioningly. Have you ever wondered why C.S. Lewis presents Jesus through the character of a lion?
C.S. Lewis certainly expects us to wonder at it … as is pretty evident in the way the children respond to this fact when it’s first mentioned to them.
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not.”
“Ooh.” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
So why the strong emphasis on Aslan not being a man? Why the strong emphasis on Aslan not being ‘safe’?
C.S. Lewis wants to remind us that there will always be something ‘other’ about God. There will always be something we don’t understand about Him and that’s beyond our control. God’s character is an absolute that, as referred to earlier, we must conform to – we cannot make Him conform to us.
God’s Absolute Character and Christian Deconstruction
The uncontrollable, untameable, unsubduable nature of God’s character is crucial for Lewis in his argument against those who believed that there was no absolute truth in the moral world, only certain ideas that humans had ascribed value to. For Lewis, humans had got cocky. Seeing how they were able to tame and subdue so much in the physical world through science, they had started to believe that values in the metaphysical world of morality were fair game too. Or, as he describes the reasoning of such people:
This Tao which, it seems, we must treat as an absolute is simply a phenomenon like any other … Why must our conquest of nature stop short, in stupid reverence, before this final and toughest bit of ‘nature’ which has hitherto been called the conscience of man?
This is the mistake the White Witch makes, and Edmund too under her influence. The White Witch has the whole of the physical world in Narnia under her spell so that it’s always winter. Edmund, who falls quickly into her power on entering Narnia (if not long before then at the school which apparently changed him – perhaps with the very ideas on absolute truth that concerned Lewis so very much) convinces himself that there’s no truth to the claims made by the beavers about the character of the White Witch – aka that she really is bad. Instead of acknowledging the evilness of her character and acting accordingly, he convinces himself that he can see through all the ‘nasty things’ they say about her and that it’s simply because they are her enemies that they say them.
C.S. Lewis on ‘Seeing Through’ Absolute Truths
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis is particularly cutting about people who claim to be able to ‘see through’ the truth of moral value judgements simply because they say they’ve come to understand the motivations of people or cultures ascribing truth to them. As he puts it in this book:
It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
That the White Witch is evil and Aslan is good is a ‘first principle’ in the world of Narnia. By supposedly ‘seeing through’ this, Edmund is as good as blind – or at least, he would be. C.S. Lewis makes it clear that even if Edmund tries to convince himself that there’s nothing to the beaver’s claims that the White Witch is evil, he can’t quite manage it. He can’t quite suppress the truth. Instead, deep down inside he knows: ‘the White Witch was bad and cruel’.
But perhaps the White Witch will have more success? Perhaps the White Witch will be the one to ‘see through’ Aslan and realise that he’s as subduable to her powers as the rest of Narnia?
Next week we will take a look at just that.