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.”

The Great Divorce, Chapter 4

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

Kaylee
Kaylee McElroy

As a first-time reader of The Great Divorce, I first have to admit that my speculations may be immediately refuted in the upcoming chapters. Perhaps none of my analysis will hold. My second confession is that I ended up thinking a lot about Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and its potential connections to this chapter (and potentially future chapters). I might be totally fabricating these parallels, but let’s have some fun with it.

In this chapter, the narrator steps aside while people from this real land approach the Ghosts. He doesn’t want to intrude upon emotional reunions, so he pretends that he wishes to explore. His underlying assumption is that, while the people look as if they are walking toward the Ghosts with a purpose, none would be looking for him. I’m not sure why he assumes this. Maybe we’ll find out in later chapters.

He walks among trees and feels the grass—more real than he is— stab his ghostly feet. He compares the feeling to that of the mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen. That little mermaid longed to “be where the people are” (yet our narrator only visited the new land because of boredom) and thus agreed to give away her voice and comfort in exchange for legs. The little mermaid feels as if she is “treading upon sharp knives,” though she walks with exceptional grace. The little mermaid and the narrator are both in new worlds. Perhaps they are both worlds that will ultimately bring them more pain than the feeling of knives in feet.

The little mermaid, after giving up her voice, her comfort, and her old world, did not survive. In fact, her grandmother described how humans have immortal souls, but mermaids only become sea foam. She did not even survive into an afterlife. She could only gain an immortal soul if the following conditions were met:

Unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.

The narrator is already in an afterlife, and perhaps he will survive (at least long enough to narrate the book, I’d hope) but will experience pain in the same way that Big Ghost did. May he also have to revisit his past, with all its guilt and discomfort? Though it may be premature, I predict that this all-encompassing love of a man denied to the little mermaid may be God’s gift to the narrator. The little mermaid is told that such love cannot be granted to her, because humans think that the mermaids’ tails are ugly. Perhaps God feels the same way about our sin, yet has love for us that surpasses the disgust for our transgressions.

The man who visited the Big Ghost said that the journey to the mountains was full of joy, but also full of work. I wonder what work the narrator will have to experience, and whether he will experience that joy that the man alluded to. Will he be able to confront his past in a way the Big Ghost was unable to? The little mermaid’s sisters all forgot about the allure of the land soon after first seeing it. Will the narrator, just as the little mermaid, be alone in his desire to continue despite the obstacles? If he is, I still wonder who will come to greet him, if anyone, and if he is somehow unique.

The Great Divorce, Ch. 3

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

IMG_1766
Emmanuel “Eli” Gemora

In this chapter, the mystical bus lands, the passengers exit, and their minds are expanded. The passengers realize they are not as real as they thought or the place they are in is more real than anything they have ever experienced.

This is an experience not unfamiliar to people (like me) who have experienced sensory overload or a dissociative state. It can be an alarming state to be in, but is also illuminating. You can be aware of the complex individuality in each small atom of existence, the large expanse of everything in existence, and also your own insignificance. If you also manage to ground yourself and do away with the alarm, you can see and understand more than you normally would. I have managed this at times when creating art, becoming aware of the vast array of colors possessed in a white wall.

In a less material – and more relatable – sense, we can also experience this when we are gaining knowledge. We can have an idea of Christianity, then as we begin experiencing it, learning about it, and having fellowship, we begin to see that everything is much bigger than we could even comprehend.

Like the passengers on the bus, we may have excitedly shoved our way out into a Christian existence, only to get scared back onto the bus or overwhelmed into a frozen state. Maybe we started trying to do things we weren’t yet ready for, had grander expectations than were accurate. Either way, let’s huddle together with the remaining bus passengers and see what happens when you stick around in a grander reality.

The Great Divorce, Chapter 2

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

Adam Oberstadt
Adam Oberstadt

The second chapter confirms that the narrator is in a supernatural place. The bus not only departs, but flies away; the gray city proves to be billions upon billions of miles across; our civilization’s long-dead heroes, the generals and kings, live on the city’s outer edges.

On the ascending bus with his improbable fellow travelers, the narrator is now separated from the masses below. Any of the people left in the city could catch one of the buses, seemingly bound for some better, brighter realm, but their progress is stunted largely by their own decision not to make the journey. What holds them back?

Vanity, it seems, halts the masses. There is nothing worth fighting over in a land with no scarcity, where everyone has everything they want, but they move farther and farther away from the bus stop each time a quarrel between neighbors pushes them apart. The great Napoleon, we learn, is too busy wallowing in self-pity and blaming others for his downfall even to consider leaving the gray city, choosing to bind himself up with sorrow.

Even those on the bus brim with pride. Other passengers have boarded in hopes of having their self-perceived genius finally recognized in the next realm, or even with plans of returning to the city after obtaining obscure, “real” goods, remaining attached to the dreary city for the love of profit and power. One cultured man is optimistic about the city’s future—and he may be right, for all we know—but he holds that belief as a way of distancing himself from more “primitive” thinkers. Will he, too, go back to the city when the bus turns around? These men bring to mind the Gospel teaching that where one’s heart is, there also is their treasure. Their hearts are in the city of shallow, selfish pleasures, which may prove their end destination after all.

It is in our nature to be prideful, and when such feelings are uncontrolled, they can prevent us from coming closer to the divine. Despite warnings Jesus gave to reconcile with our adversaries, be humble, and seek first His kingdom, humans often fall into habits akin to the souls we meet in this chapter. We fight for our sense of pride, dwell on failure, and inflate our egos. Do we think hard enough about how these habits might hold us back from our full potential, in this life and the next?

 

The Great Divorce, Chapter 1

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis and blogging about it together. The first blog post in our series comes from our chaplain, the Rev. Josh Hosler.

2016-05-10-red-squareI discovered the writings of C.S. Lewis during my own college years. Well, I already knew about Narnia, of course. But one of my professors, a Methodist pastor who also taught communications classes, recommended that we read Surprised by Joy and see the then-current biographical movie Shadowlands, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis. I also read Mere Christianity, a book which spoke to me deeply at age 21. Here at last was a way forward in my faith, a way of reconciling the realities of science with the deepest longings of my soul.

It must have been during that senior year of college or shortly after that I first read The Great Divorce. Up to that point, my theology about heaven and hell had been influenced greatly by The Last Battle from the Narnia series. But here was a parallel parable, an imaginative way to understand Christian theologies of death, resurrection, afterlife, judgment, and redemption. I read it several times, but now it has been many years since I last picked it up.

When people ask me about death and what happens to us on the other side of it, I usually start by saying, “Well, let’s be honest: none of us really knows.” It is part of the human condition to be uncertain about or even afraid of death. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures offer many images to help us prepare for this eventuality, though I don’t think we’re meant to put too much stock in their literal sense. None of us has rock-solid proof of what happens to the soul in death. We must entrust ourselves to the love of God, and if we want to go further, we must use our imagination.

So join us now in C.S. Lewis’s imagination. The narrator finds himself in a grey town that hovers in perpetual dusk. There is a queue for a bus, and he joins it for lack of anything better to do. Several other people get impatient with the line and leave, but our narrator does eventually get on board. He leaves behind the grey town with all its “cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements,” an image that, for me, calls to mind suburban strip malls. Some people will live all their lives in such places and not know that there might be something better. How about you? Do you long for something beyond the mundane and self-gratifying? Where could this bus be headed?

 

trans*substance

This reflection was written by a member of EPIC.

2017-04-20 12.10.08I have felt this Holy Week more deeply than any before.

I have spent around 20 years lost before beginning my preparation for death and rebirth. I have prepared for confirmation in a name of my choosing.

God is with us.

He has called me by name. He has knit my inmost being. He created me as I am, knowing my creation necessitates suffering and death.

It is a process familiar to all Christians, but known to Jesus and to trans people.

Jesus was born both as himself and as something foreign: divine and human. When he was denied, God was with him. He was dehumanized, but he had God. When his humanity was finished, as a dual being, he came to his full divinity.

Trans people too are born as two in one: not quite one or the other and yet completely both. We must die to our old lives to achieve a whole. We become one body through our experiences as self-made beings. We are all brothers, sisters, siblings. What you do to one of us, you do to us all. We are one blood. When one of us is born, we are all born. We have eternal life. When we die, we are born into a new life and into an existence bigger than our own, one that carries through us all. We achieve eternity through a shared being.

On Good Friday, the Lord spoke to me—a phrase I do not use lightly and a feeling I have never felt before—saying, “I too have suffered. It is not just you. They would forsake even me, the Son and King. And just as God is with me in my suffering, He is with you.”

And so I say to my trans siblings, know that on this Holy Week, the Lord knows you, understands you, and has suffered as you have suffered.  God is with me and so too is God with you.

We will be denied, we will be scared, but we will do what we must. In Holy Week, death is not the end of the story. Christ is risen and so are we.

 

ProvGat: A Transformative Experience

2017-03-31 EPIC Leaving for ProvEPIC members on their way to ProvGat, March 31, 2017. From L to R: Richard Hill, Emilie Han, Anna Ortung, Emily Browning, Becky Gregg, Meredith Bee, Tommy Tubbs, Kaylee McElroy, and Ruthie Ewald.

by Tommy Tubbs

On March 31, eight other members of EPIC and I flew down to UC Davis to attend the annual retreat for the campus ministry groups of Province VIII of the Episcopal Church. The event is often called “Prov” or “ProvGat” (Province Gathering) for short. About a dozen groups gathered together, all from different backgrounds.

The retreat was focused around a keynote speaker as well as workshops led by the various campus ministries. The keynote speaker was the Very Rev. Dr. Brian Baker, Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento. He spoke about many different things, such as a surprising spiritual awakening at the Burning Man festival, before moving into the topic of the retreat: finding justice without losing your soul in the process. Obviously, no matter where someone falls on the political spectrum, we can all agree we are living in a rather divided era.

For about an hour, Brian opened the floor to discussion, and for the first time since the election, I witnessed an open and civil conversation not only about politics but about how to deal with someone who has wronged you in some way. Normally these sorts of conversation tend to play out in two ways: the people are so hesitant to say anything that could be taken as criticism that no points are made, or the conversation doesn’t go anywhere. The second is just the opposite, where people become so aggressive in conversation that they quickly delve into a spiteful yelling match, which doesn’t help either side.

This was conversation was neither of those. For a hour, I witnessed one of the most raw and moving conversations I ever had. No one held back, but no one seemed to feel aggressive toward anyone, either. It really was a healing experience. I felt a sense of spirituality afterward I never really have before. I feel I can speak for a lot of people in the room by saying it was a transformative experience.

The conversation continued the next morning. Brian spoke on some of the feedback he had received, and the second conversation felt even more constructive than the first. After that we had the opportunity to go to two workshops led by some of the different chaplains involved in campus ministry. I was very impressed with the wide variety of topics offered, ranging from information on Christian hospice care to the history of the New Testament. The following morning we all attended Eucharist at St. Martin’s in Davis. After that the retreat ended, and everyone went their separate ways.

2017-04-01 ProvGat - Graduating Seniors
It is an annual tradition at ProvGat to honor graduating seniors from the many campus ministries.