Christian Deconstruction and God’s Character
In my last post, we began to discuss what C.S. Lewis might have had to say on the topic of Christian deconstruction (a movement characterised by Christians analysing their faith for themselves and questioning traditional Biblical interpretations and Christian norms).
As an academic, C.S. Lewis would have, of course, encouraged this desire to examine faith critically. But he would have also had one big caution: be careful about projecting what we as humans think God should be onto what He is.
The very reason why he portrayed Aslan as a lion, not a human, was to convey the fact that there will always be something ‘other’ about God. He isn’t human. In fact, He’s something much greater and more powerful than humans. As such, we shouldn’t even for a moment think that we can subdue Him to conform Him to our ideas. Instead, we should be conforming our value system to fit with His character.
C.S. Lewis was very concerned by the tendency he observed in British education, of no longer teaching young people to respect moral absolutes. He explores this threat through the characters of Edmund and the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Both of these characters refuse to acknowledge Aslan’s absolute identity as King of Narnia and an embodiment of goodness.
So, let’s pick up where we left off. What comes of the White Witch’s and Edmund’s refusal to acknowledge and conform themselves to the truth of Aslan’s character?
What Happens When You Refuse to Acknowledge and Conform to God’s Character
For Edmund it means he becomes motivated by his most basic desires. C.S. Lewis argues that this is the inevitable consequence of ‘seeing through’ all other motivations (as Edmund tries to convince himself he has done by supposedly identifying the biases of the people who warn him that Aslan is good and the White Witch is evil):
When all that says ‘It is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretentions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.
For C.S. Lewis, being motivated by our own pleasure ultimately becomes enslavement to it. Edmund exemplifies this point when the White Witch enslaves him through his desire for Turkish Delight until she has him literally tied, bound and forced to hurry along whilst being whipped from behind.
The White Witch
For the White Witch, the consequence of not respecting the existence of absolute truth is her downfall. After successfully having kept the physical world in winter for so long, she goes a step too far and tries to subdue Aslan, the King of Narnia, himself.
Aslan apparently allows her to do so and the two girls, Susan and Lucy, watch from afar as the White Witch and all her evil supporters bind him and cut off his mane. Eventually, with a gasp, the supporters look at him and realise that without his mane he looks like any ordinary house cat. It would seem that the supporters of the White Witch really have ‘seen through’ Aslan. Once they’ve killed him, it seems like they’ve finally subdued him too.
Yet the White Witch is in for a shock. She thinks that in killing Aslan there will be no consequences. She thinks there’s no absolute standard of right and wrong to contend with over the morality of killing someone innocent. The next day, to her surprise, she discovers she is wrong. The act of killing someone totally innocent is such a grotesque crime that it cracks the very fabric of the world in two – as symbolised by the cracking of the round table Aslan was killed on – and death starts to work backwards.
Unsubduable Aslan, his mane as magnificent as ever, comes back to life. Restoring all the White Witch’s prisoners who she had made into stone statues, he goes out to fight her in a tremendous battle.
Is Aslan Like Any Ordinary House Cat?
It turns out that Aslan never was and never could be ‘seen through’. C.S. Lewis makes this point clear in what appears at first to be a chance comparison of Aslan to a kitten, as he plays with Susan and Lucy after his resurrection. Here it is said that:
Round and round the hill-top he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.
Here Aslan is, playing like any ordinary, harmless kitten. This is just as the supporters of the White Witch might expect given that they have supposedly seen through his regal lion exterior to the fact that he is apparently no more dangerous than a house cat.
Yet, not so.
There’s something ungraspable, incomprehensible, far more powerful and dangerous about Aslan than anything we could reduce him to in our human minds. He’s ‘hopelessly out of our reach’ conceptually. The girls almost think they might understand him when he lets ‘them almost catch his tail’. Then, suddenly, he does something totally unexpected until Lucy can’t make up her mind whether he’s more like a kitten (like the supporters of the White Witch suggested) or a thunderstorm – something of a totally opposite and irreconcilable character.
God’s Unsubduable Character
Aslan will never be tamed, never be subdued and neither will God be. God is a reality that we will have to acknowledge as He is in some way at some point – either as His friend or His enemy. We can never make Him conform to us.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes this great final reckoning we will all experience when Jesus returns on Judgement Day. Suddenly we will know whether we are really Jesus’ friend or his enemy and the answer might surprise us. Either way, our reaction will be powerful, either powerful love (as with Peter, Susan and Lucy’s reaction to Aslan) or powerful hatred (as with Edmund’s reaction to Aslan for most of the book).
A Practical Approach to Christian Deconstruction
So, how should we incorporate this respect for the absolute nature of God’s character and attributes when re-interpreting the Bible and questioning traditional Christian norms?
I have a few suggestions.
First of all, we must be prepared for the fact that there may be aspects of God’s character that we don’t expect. Aspects that we might not want to be like that, even. This shouldn’t be a surprise because, as demonstrated, there will always be something alien about God. He isn’t human and He also isn’t something that humans can subdue to conform to them.
Secondly, if you’re not sure how to interpret something in the Bible, use Jesus as your ‘light’. As has often been noted, different readers have interpreted the Bible in widely different ways over the course of history. Given that God’s character is absolute, not all of these interpretations can be correct. Thankfully, Jesus came to be our ‘way’ to understand the absolute value of things in light of His character. This being so, if your interpretation of a passage in the Bible doesn’t seem to tally up with the character displayed by Jesus – then keep on searching as you must be missing something.
Finally, pray before you read and ask the ‘helper’ that is the Holy Spirit to guide you as you try to understand the Bible.
Of course, even with these tips a certain amount of human error is likely to remain, but at least you will have done what you can, in preparing yourself properly, to minimise that risk.
Prompts for Thought
What’s your approach to interpreting the Bible? How do you manage differences of opinion between yourself and other Christians about the meaning of difficult passages?
Which aspects of God’s character challenge or surprise you the most?