What’s Wrong with the World

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The weary world rejoices

IMG_1470.JPG I don't need to tell you that the world is weary. And anybody who has been reading my posts here and on Facebook can figure out some of the reasons why I think the world is weary. There are, of course, plenty more. I don't need to start listing all the evils of the world, some of which you can agree with me about even if we disagree about others.

Those of us who are Christians and also "literary types" know of a certain kind of literature in which the characters have big epiphanies about the eternal import of their smallest actions. You might call this the Charles Williams trope. Williams has a scene where a woman is being annoying and a guard announcing the trains at a train station is entirely polite to her. Williams goes into rather purple rhapsodies about the eternal value of his two words, "Yes, lady." Similarly, in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is ordered to desecrate a crucifix. He's an agnostic, so the symbol means nothing to him, and he can't figure out why he's being told to do it. His wicked employer Frost tells him that they have found this to be necessary to the training of people in their organization. Studdock finally says, "It's all nonsense, and I'm damned if I'll do any such thing." Lewis, of course, means the reader to realize that Studdock's words have far more literal meaning than he intends. Like Caiaphas, we all sometimes speak prophecy without knowing it, and everything means more than we can possibly realize.

But this creates a bit of a problem in its own right for imaginative types.

For if all the good things and all the bad things have vast, eternal meaning, what happens if there are more bad things going on in the world than good things? What right have I to comfort myself with the thought of that one smile exchanged between neighbors on the street (and perhaps now more than ever when it is almost a subversive act to let one's smile show when passing one's neighbor), that one eternal flower that blooms forever in the mind of God, the one evergreen act of courage, while not offsetting it with the thought of many acts of torture and destruction, the vast amounts of filth on the Internet, the souls hunted down, corrupted, and devoured, the suicides, the insane, the injustice? If they are also of infinite importance (and surely in one sense they are), who is to say which outweighs which in the eternal scales? What is the weight of my one little act of charity when there is so much bad in the world? And on this thought, the mind bows down, crushed with the weight of too much knowledge, the thought of too much darkness.

But then I remember St. Paul's statement that the sufferings of this present world are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. And I remember, too, that evil is a privation. And I remember that God is glorious beyond all the evil that man can do.

C.S. Lewis seems to have wrestled with this notion of "too much darkness" in his fiction. In Perelandra the Un-man tries to tell Ransom that the real world is the world of filth and darkness and that the courage of the saints and the innocence of children is as nothing in comparison. The scene is creepy, and one can tell that Lewis has really confronted this possibility. But the whole point is that the Un-man is a damned soul and is uttering the falsehoods of Satan. Why? Because ultimately, it just isn't true that that is a "greater reality." It's not, of course, that our sense of something wrong is an illusion. Rather, it's that the "something wrong" is a twisting of what is good, and what is good, the Good Himself, is over and above all the evil. This is true no matter how much evil rational creatures do and suffer. So in The Great Divorce, George McDonald tells Lewis (as a character in his own book) that one glorious, redeemed soul could not fit into Hell:

All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swalled all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste....All loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. If all Hell's miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.

Now there's a man who has truly rejected the dualism of two equal and opposite Powers (good and evil), ever-contending. But he has not rejected it without feeling its pull and the despair to which it leads. If God is just the "light side of the Force," we're all doomed. Thank God He isn't. What Lewis says here (through Macdonald) might give the impression that he thinks evil actions are an illusion, but he expressly rejects that position in his letters. Rather, the strong Platonism of his use of phrases like "the Real World" indicates that he affirms the ultimate triumph of good and the derivative nature of evil.

And so at the tag end of this dark year, I offer you a thrill of hope. No, it's not a vaccine. No, it's not anything of earth at all. And yet it affirms the flesh and promises a new heaven and a new earth. He makes all things new. There we shall see him, and each other, face to face. This is possible because the Word was made flesh, and the Virgin bore to men a Savior when half-spent was the night.

Merry Christmas!

Comments (4)

A good word, Lydia.

I would add that we can also take comfort in some aspects of Scripture that many moderns have recoiled from -- the imprecatory Psalms, some of the more strident of the minor Prophets (Amos comes to mind), the latter part of Revelation. The longing for vengeance against evil, in mere human terms, may well be a kind of concupiscence; but comfort in the knowledge of the infinite, final, and perfect justice of a righteous God, whose wrath against evil remains ever pure, is for us indeed a real comfort.

The smoke of the charred body of the great prostitute will go up forever and ever. (Rev 19:3)

St. John's Revelation, we must remember, was (among other purposes) given for the upholding and the reassurance of the persecuted churches of the Anatolian coast. That particular historical context must always anchor an at times very strange document; many an interpreter has come to grief when he slipped that anchor. (If your interpretation would not make sense to Jewish and Greek Christians of the eastern Aegean in the 1st and 2nd century, you probably need a new interpretation.)

But the great question of the martyrs -- "how long, O Lord, before you will judge?" -- will one day be answered, spectacularly, such that from then on, every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

Thank you, Lydia, for this beautifully vivid reminder of hope. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Merry Christmas, Beth!

I am reminded of a line from a movie that my children often quote: "A dark age indeed..." They will sometimes quote it about external events, but more usually about more prosaic events, such as the power going out. Or a light bulb refusing to work. (It's quoted from the character of Merlin in Disney's "The Sword in the Stone," where he is talking about the early middle ages, but then riffs into "no electricity, no plumbing..." so the kids' use of it is true to the original.)

There is grave evil in every age, but some ages are worse than others. And some years are worse than others. 2020 had a whole heap of bad, but not everything in it is bad, such as the birth of a grandson. I try to steel myself to still worse things to come, but to look forward rather to the renewal that will put paid to all the suffering we must endure here.

Merry Christmas to all.

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