Further Up, Further In, Further Out

In going further up, in, out, many discover the gospel with which they are not familiar.

In the early 1960s Jack Nicklaus emerged as an extraordinary golfer, dominating the game. The man who previously dominated, Bobby Jones, said of Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

The same can be said of those who ascend, who come further up, further in, further out. I introduced this idea last week. This week I piggyback on C. S. Lewis, suggesting that those who come further up, in, out discover the gospel with which few Christians today are familiar.

We see this in the last book of Lewis’ Narnia series, The Last Battle. Shift the Ape has sown confusion in Narnia because the people only know Aslan by name. They are not familiar with his history, or his character, so they can be easily duped. This is Lewis’ assessment of modern folks like us. We are unfamiliar with 2,000 years of God being described as an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.[1]

Familiar with that? Beginning in the third century, the church imagined the infinite triune God as a sphere, depicting multi-dimensions, three Persons sharing one nature. Infinite, as without beginning or end. The centre of this infinite sphere is everywhere.

Try imagining that. It’s a mystery. The centre of God is present everywhere, so everything is sacred, a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God. Songs, soup, sandwiches, sex, sacraments—all are enchanted because they’re awash in two loves—human and divine.

And God’s circumference being nowhere? Try imagining that. It’s a mystery. God is without end, beyond human comprehension. That’s why we come further up, further in… forever. There is no frontier, no end to knowing the infinite God. We never settle in at: I got this.

Yet this has been my experience with most Christians. They come to Christ, learn a bit about God, the gospel… then never go further. I hear it in guys my age. They recite lines about God they learned long ago, in their 20s. They never ascended further up, in, out.

Lewis did. He describes this ascent in his scholarly work, The Discarded Image. Medieval man, he wrote, “is like a man being conducted through an immense cathedral.” The effect of looking up at the ceiling was “vertiginous,” dizzyingly wondrous.[2] Medieval people saw the cosmos, including the earth, stuffed with the triune God, angels, demons, creation, hell.

Familiar with that? The Apostle Paul was. He was taken up to the third heaven, “caught up” to Paradise, Heaven, eternity, where “the things he heard were too sacred for words, things that man is not permitted to tell” (II Cor.12:3-4). The image is of a man being swept up.

And swept away, enchanted. The further up Paul went, the further “in” he went in imagining the heavens and the earth. They’re enchanted, so there’s no “agoraphobia,” Lewis writes, no irrational fear of the world, even a fallen one.[3] Fear is impossible because there is absolutely nothing to fear. There are no “secular” parts of “the world” where God is absent.

Familiar with that? Come further up. In this enchanted world, everything “has a shape,” Lewis writes, “containing within itself an ordered variety.”[4] In other words, when we come further up, we see further in, more deeply into how all of earthly life ought to be ordered.

Familiar with that? Come further up. In this enchanted world, we un-cover ordering with the help of guides, spiritual directors. It’s never a matter of individuals hunkering down over the Bible and “figuring it out.” It’s more a matter of “modesty,” Lewis writes, appreciating tradition and received wisdom passed down by “friends, ancestors, patrons in every age.”[5]

Familiar with that? Come further up. In the enchanted world, literature is known for its “sheer, unabashed dullness.”[6] It’s dull because the enchanted world is enchanting, wondrous, all by itself. We find no exclamation marks or overuse of superlatives that are so common today in American Christianity (c.f., Passion! Incredible! Awesome!).

Familiar with that? Come further up. In the enchanted world, we feel a sense of déjà vu. Looking up into eternity, we sense something familiar about our landscape. In The Last Battle, Farsight the Eagle sees this. “Narnia is not dead,” he says. “This is Narnia.” And yet, whispers Lord Digory, it’s “more like the real thing.” The further up we come, the more feel this déjà vu. We see further in, how the wedding banquet with Christ in eternity is prefigured in the Eucharist, as well as in meals with friends. It’s magical, mystical, enchanting.

Familiar with that? Come further up. There’s always more of all that’s good. Limitless goodness seen with endless wonder. The further up we come, the further in we go, the further out we see, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside. “World within world,” says Lucy. “Narnia within Narnia.”

“Yes,” says Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion, except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” Familiar with that? If not, come further up.

Next week we’ll go even further up and in, discovering why the cross of Christ is larger than most of us imagine. I invite you to come further up, further in, further out.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1942)

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, (Cambridge University Press 1964, 2013), 98.

[3] Discarded, 99.

[4] Discarded, 185.

[5] Discarded, 185.

[6] Discarded, 204.

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4 Comments

  1. Mike, do you have any ideas what would prompt someone to be a “life-long learner” to go “up, in, and out?” I see so many of my peers that are not reading, nor pursuing or broadening their understanding of God both relationally and intellectually. I am blessed to be immersed with friends who are constant readers and thoughtful thinkers that want to examine everything from our temporal culture to the infinite. They have one thing in common and that is an overall humility in how much there is to know about God and their own finite ability to comprehend it all. I count you as one of those friends who provoke me to think deeply about these things. Thanks for serving me in that way.

  2. Tim, I have a few ideas, but I’m pretty sure my list is incomplete.

    In some ways, being a lifelong learner (something I see in both of us) is bound up in having an insatiable curiosity about…. everything. This doesn’t seem to be the strong suit of Americans. I remember a summer Kathy and I spent in England. Many our friends on the other side of the pond (over there) are lifelong learners. They attributed much of this to the difference between the English approach to education (a search for better questions) and the American approach (finding the “right” answer). In general, folks in other countries ask “why” questions far more than most Americans (who more ask “how” questions). Americans seem to be rather incurious about things, about why we have, for example, technologies and whether they promote human flourishing. In my experience, eyes glaze over when I ask these questions of those who work with code, cloud, virtual reality, online education, and so on.

    I also think incuriosity is bound up in our buildings, how few of them depict what C. S. Lewis and others described as enchanted reality. The Bible uses the word “wonder” to describe being enchanted. Most of our buildings fail to evoke a sense of wonder, so most Christians are not enchanted, so they’re not very curious.

    I also think incuriosity is bound up in our disembodied traditions, how few Christians recognize ours’ is an embodied faith, too wondrous to fully describe, best told in our bodies, in our sexuality as male and female, especially in nuptial union (c.f., Proverbs 30:18-19). You tell me how many churches are willing to go that far up, further up, further in to what scripture depicts as wondrous.

    No wonder, no curiosity to be a lifelong learner.

    Finally, I’ll touch next week on something else that Lewis said is insatiable. It too results in lifelong learners (note my not-so-sneaky way of stringing you along).

  3. “This is Lewis’ assessment of modern folks like us. We are unfamiliar with 2,000 years of God being described as an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.[1]”

    Totally separate from the thrust of your essay, Mike, do you associate sphere-ness with Aristotle? And if so do you associate a loss of Aristotilian philosophy/theology with a loss of up & in & out? Or is all that “apples & oranges”?

    I do enjoy this essay on what is certainly difficult to put into words. My up & in & out experience doesn’t have room for demons & angels & faries etc., perhaps because Hobbit movies are just too silly for me. Bad taste left in my mouth. Instead “The Great Divorce” leaves a taste of people in progress/process or at least static vs non-static inside of space where The Lord surrounds them in every molecule. God takes up so much infinite reality. But if you find these “other beings” then good for you, it’s what The Good Lord has for you and may you be infinitely blessed – as I am blessed by your take on things.

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