The Great Divorce, Chapter 5

Jon and Abe
Jon Fedele

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. The fifth post in our series comes from Jon Fedele.

C. S. Lewis writes The Great Divorce, about those past dead traveling on a bus from hell to heaven. They are not prevented from going to heaven (as a prisoner cannot leave prison at will or as we could not leave the Milky Way Galaxy tomorrow – which is to say, by practical or physical constraint). Rather, they seem to be kept there or bound to return there by various levels of stubbornness, unwilling to accept the reality that they have wound up in hell at last.

At first, the book reads to me a little like someone talking at me, saying things that I don’t find particularly engaging—it’s too fanciful and dream-like. But by the fifth chapter, the one I am writing about, I’ve actually begun to find it interesting. It’s about a biased intellectual, the Fat Ghost, who was a bishop in life but ended up in hell, talking with his old friend Dick, one of the Fat Ghost’s intellectual contemporaries in life who became “narrow-minded” in his later life and spends the afterlife in heaven.

At first I felt tempted to write about this remark by the Fat Ghost. When Dick asks him if he believes God exists, the biased intellectual replies,

“Exists? What does Existence mean? You… keep implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. … If there were such a thing… I should not be interested in it.”

I first wished to write about metaphysics, since there are a very many ideas which intellectuals send our way, the existence of which we should question. The popular parlance among people under fifty goes, “X is a thing,” where X is a noun whose existence in reality has been asserted, and not always a material substance. But before I got too deep into those things I learned in philosophy class, I realized I was missing a larger picture. To wit, if it’s cold outside and you are outside, the cold is a part of reality you must conform to. I find, in such situations, that abstractions about what existence is are much less comforting than fire.

The human mind can invent many fictions to keep from acknowledging reality. We are much more skillful than we know at explaining why things are the way we said they were. It can hold us back in life, and the worry Lewis explores is that it might hold us back in death too. When confronted by evidence that he has wound up in hell, the Fat Ghost invents ideas that say evening is morning.

The Fat Ghost has been sent to hell—although he doesn’t see it as hell and believes Dick should discuss it reverently—because of apostasy. I’m an open-minded fellow most of the time, so it makes me a little uneasy when it is suggested that one might be damned for what one has thought, for the contents of one’s mind. But the hell that C. S. Lewis sets up doesn’t seem that bad when compared to fire and brimstone; it is more eternal listlessness than eternal agony. Moreover, the Fat Ghost’s friend offers that he may turn from his old ways now, even after he has already lived in the hell for some time.

Maybe the essential part of the Fat Ghost’s damnable apostasy was that he refused to look for the truth. He’s offered the chance to accept what would take him out of the gloomy town he began in. Failing that, he’s again offered to go on a difficult journey and see new things. But this thinking man, having made a profession for himself based on inquiry, cannot stand too many incontrovertible answers.

I suppose the lesson to be taken from all this is “seek out the truth”–the truth, not what is fashionable to say is the truth. But how will you know you have found it? Well, I suppose we should all hope that the answer to this question will manifest itself hereafter. After all, as Lincoln observed, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

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