In the last Christian Classics meeting, we discussed the book ‘The Abolition of Man’ by C.S.Lewis. There was one paragraph that struck me especially, he was writing about the dangers of modern genetics, and wrote:
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.
This struck a note with me. I am very afraid of being deceived, and I have this vague notion that God is truly good, so I would love to see God’s creation as it really is. Hence I am very motivated to adjust all that is in me in such a way that I receive God’s gifts fully and enjoy the true life.
It is sad to think of all my own valiant attempts, and the attempts of cultures and even the Church throughout history1 to use our powers (brain, will) to define what is right and wrong, true and false. My sincere wish to know the truth, and live according to it, has led me astray. A case of trying too hard. Like many Christians I thought that preaching the gospel means that we explain to people what is really true, even though it is not visible. In theory this is perfect, but in practice we might be mistaken ourselves. The most famous definition of faith2 as ‘trusting in something you cannot prove’. Obviously this creates a bit of a difficulty. Being used to doing without proof might lead us to believe in what we consider to be true, and that can prevent us from seeing life as it is.
Further down the road comes the damage from trying to conform my soul to what I thought was right. And sadly enough not just my own soul, but also the souls of my children and others for whom I felt responsible. For example I thought the Bible told me how I should feel. Like: be thankful, joyful, not angry or proud. And I tried to comply by forcing my emotions in these directions. This is a bit like shooting the messenger: the emotions in themselves are not wrong. My attempts to change or ignore them have been quite unhealthy: numbing the emotions turns you into a robot. Besides, it doesn’t even work: at times of pressure, or precisely when you don’t pay attention, the unwanted emotions come back in full force. So it is much better to value them as the gifts that they are, appreciate that God gave them as tools for perceiving reality, and learn to act on our emotions in a holy way.
C.S.Lewis talked about conforming our soul through knowledge, virtue and self-discipline. I find it difficult to speak about these things, because immediately I begin to wonder, but what is a soul? How can it be conformed and would that even be a good idea? Yet knowledge can help in clearing up misunderstandings. Self-discipline helps us to use our gifts sensibly. For example train the mind: attempt regularly to think not only about the sad things but also think about the few things that actually do work out3. Or meditate on the living words in Scripture. It can also be wise to refrain from thinking for a while and let your heart speak. We can also practice living virtuously, for example use courage to face things instead of fleeing in denial. Now it might sound as if I am saying that this can be smoothly achieved if you just set your mind to it, but unfortunately it is my experience that to see and accept reality you need a lot of sleepless nights, and struggling with yourself and God.
So instead of defining reality, we must learn to be open and just see life as it is. Become open to all facts of life. Obviously, this is outrageously impossible. It cannot be done. So, as a general rule, I think it is safe to limit ourselves to the facts that actually come on our path. Like, for example, what people say who disagree with us. Discussions so often get polarized for the simple reason that we stick to the facts we see, and they to the facts they see, and no one even tries to live with the possibility that things might be more complex. Complexity makes us insecure, but we really must learn to live with that, otherwise we will most certainly live in an illusion.
Further, instead of forcing our emotions, we need to learn to see our own inner qualities in perspective and use them as designed. God has given us such great powers, and beautiful emotions and the vast space of memory and imagination. But if we focus too much on these gifts, either by pride or by being overly self-critical, our view of ourselves can become distorted, and we may forget the most important thing: our relation with God, and the love that drives us. It is truly a wonderful gift when we finally see how much God loves us. But personally I think it is even more wonderful when God shows us how much we love Him, so that we can stop evaluating, and start using those gifts.
Conforming our soul to reality will bring us a lot of sadness. There are so many problems that we cannot solve, that it may even seem healthier to live in a comfortable illusion. But only in the real life will we find true love, which is certainly worth the price. And any hard circumstance is bearable when we have love.
Conforming our soul to reality may also seem like passively accepting the existing state, but it is not so limited. Time is a miraculous gift that enables us to influence reality. Each moment we have the possibility to choose between different available options. Be open, or closed, show up or hide, live or vegetate. If we learn to discern4 with an open mind what the different options are, we can choose wisely and walk the way of life.
- For example the church condemning the scientific discoveries of Galileo
- Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen
- Or if that doesn’t help you can always read some great gallows humor, like the book Catch-22. This book is perhaps a bit out-of-place in a Christian newsletter, for on a superficial level it may seem to advocate a very wrong lifestyle, lots of foolishness and even blasphemy. But on a deeper level it asks really good questions, and also shows the value of truth and friendship. It really made me laugh and see things in perspective, and helped me out of my fixed mindset. Surely we do not always have to be soft and gentle? Disclaimer for the prudish or feeble-hearted: be warned and read my review on GoodReads first
- Discern the times, as is described so beautifully in Ecclesiastes 3