Monday, September 20, 2010

Knowing One's Place

A friend has asked me a question after reading my post called Hell and the University. There, I said that in That Hideous Strength, Lewis makes the point that we cannot truly serve ourselves, but always ultimately serve someone greater than ourselves, of whom only two options exist: one good, one evil.  She asked me about the idea that Satan or any evil spirit might be greater than we.  Did I say the right thing?

In one way I certainly did not word this statement correctly: "greater" means too many things, some of which apply and some of which don't.  Clearly, for instance, Satan is not morally greater than any saint.  Neither will Satan surpass the saints in eternal glory.  (See the end of Lewis's great sermon "The Weight of Glory" for a gripping thought experiment on the comparative future glory of some of God's creatures.)

Soon after talking with my friend, I started reading my yearly dose of Augustine (books XI to XIV in The City of God) and found there some ideas that helped me think about my wording.  In discussing first simply whether a thing is good or bad, the great saint reminds us that the answer often depends on perspective.  Fire is beautiful and noble in itself, but harmful if it touches our frail bodies.  Some poisons can be medicinal when used "in conformity with their qualities and design."  Food is pleasant only when taken in moderation.  And so on.  The problem is that we usually judge a thing by its utility for us rather than according to its nature.  Naturally, we judge what we experience from human perspective; but, while we can't see through God's eyes, we can by faith believe that all created natures are good in his view.  After all, "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good."  In referring specifically to the fallen angels, Augustine reminds us that while they are evil in will, they are still great in nature because they are angels.  If they were not so great in nature, their rebellion would not have been so tragic.

But how great are they?  By nature, Augustine says (and I agree with him), the angels are greater than humans.  In fact, Augustine sees everything in creation as arranged in ranks of greatness, every level filled in a way that expresses the wondrous glory of God in the greatest possible variety.  In our days of political correctness, we're not used to seeing anything hierarchically and probably feel offense at any talk of superiority.  But we are the oddballs of history here.  The notion of hierarchy runs all through the first letter to the Corinthians, for instance: some parts of the human body are superior to others, some offices are superior, some spiritual gifts, and on and on.

Augustine adopts Aristotle's hierarchical view of kinds of life: the lifeless stone is lower by nature than the nonsentient but living plants, which are lower than the sentient animals, which are lower than the rational humans.  The Bible seems to support this view; Peter, for instance, says that the unrighteous act like irrational animals but points out that the angels, "greater in might and power" than they, don't revile them (II Peter 2:12).  Back in I Corinthians again, a study of the original Greek of chapter 3 shows that Paul compares fleshly life, mental life, and spiritual life.  And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that at the incarnation Jesus was made a little lower than the angels.  By nature -- that is, in view of the original purpose of their design -- angels, even fallen angels, are greater than humans.

But my friend reminded me that Satan is a defeated power and as such is not greater than I.  Agreed.  Sadly, though, humans can debase themselves.  Some creatures -- the stars, for instance, and the irrational animals (see Ps. 19:1-6 and Jer. 8:7) -- stay in their place and serve God by fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed.  But creatures with a moral will do not always serve God and can descend morally lower than they stand by nature; again, the tragedy of this rebellion lies in the lasting distance between what they desire and Who they were designed to desire.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul tells us ominously that if a person yields obedience to anyone or anything else, he becomes the slave of that person or thing.  And this, I think, is what Lewis's story tells: when one tries to serve himself, he turns his will away from God (Who is his natural end), and ultimately yields obedience to the kingdom of sin, becoming its slave, and making himself in an additional way inferior to that kingdom and to its king.

1 comment:

  1. At the risk of being politically incorrect, you are a greater writer than I...much greater.