Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Transposition, Not Musical

Last month I said a few words about C. S. Lewis’s great address “The Weight of Glory.” But the eponymous little volume in which that essay is found contains eight others, including one that equals the first, if in fact it does not surpass it.

Immediately following “The Weight of Glory,” “Learning in War-Time” records a sermon Lewis gave to students at the Oxford University Church of St. Mary. Is it frivolous to study poetry or obscure details of history when one’s countrymen fight on the front line? No more frivolous, says Lewis, than at any other time. A carefree situation for study will never come in this lifetime, so pursue your interests, knowing that even the soldiers at the front take time to play cards and write home. The important thing is offer do whatever you do to God. “Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organisation which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials.” As a scholar who has questioned the propriety of studying harmonies in pop songs during times much less urgent than the defense of my country against Nazi invasion, I found this sermon especially comforting.

In “Why I Am Not a Pacificist,” Lewis makes at least two interesting, helpful points on ethical reasoning. First, most ethical diatribes mistake heartfelt positions for self-evident truth. People who say that all war or all drink or [fill in your own contemporary example] is evil, pure and simple, have both the teaching of great philosophers and the common sense of most of humanity against them. If the position were as self-evident as the campaigner says, then why must he campaign? Second, the first point can’t be taken too far since humanity is broken and doesn’t always see what is ethically self-evident. Therefore, we can only have confidence about most ethical reasoning, not certainty.

In the fourth essay, “Transposition,” Lewis addresses a critique of skeptics who say that religion can’t truly point to anything outside this life since it always ends up talking about light, praise, blood, punishment, chariots, fire, gold, gardens, and other all too earthly things. His basic answer points out that any higher system expressing itself in a lower must use the terms of the lower, must be “transposed.” His very interesting example notes that both joy and anguish (from the “higher” realm of emotion) can produce the same twisted gut (in the “lower” realm of sensation). In the same way, love and lust lead to the same conjugal act. The person who doesn’t believe in love sees only lust in every loving couple. And the skeptic with no view of the divine realm cannot see anything but earthly objects and emotions in a believer’s life. “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” The ramifications of Lewis’s theory of transposition touch upon incarnation, sacraments, and one his favorite topics: truth in myth. These twenty beautiful pages are too little known; if my post inspires just one or two people to read them, I shall have done some good in my world today.

I once had the joy of sitting in the St. Mary Church at Oxford and listening to the visiting Bishop of Liverpool praise C. S. Lewis as practically a prophet who foresaw and addressed issues of our times. I don’t think C. S. Lewis foresaw me in particular, but I know that these three essays speak to issues important to me seventy years after he wrote them.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think the world has changed so very much as people think it has since Lewis was alive. He didn't have to see issues of our times to discuss them, they were issues then as well. Like the issues of the decline in education he talks about in The Parthenon and the Optative. It was happening then, and is still happening, because in the scheme of things not a lot of time has passed, at least not enough for educators to have learned from the mistakes that were made then.

    I have the book The Weight of Glory. Now I need to get around to reading it.