Friday, July 29, 2016

Till We Have Tolerant Faces

Several times in these posts, I’ve shared my frustration concerning the rarity of people who understand what seems so obvious to me about religious toleration. To illustrate, let me say that I am not a Hindu. I believe many claims of the Hindu faith are incorrect. I wish Hindus could be Christian. Nevertheless I have enormous respect for the Hindu religion. I find some of their sacred writings stunningly beautiful. I admire the piety of millions of faithful Hindus who honor their gods according to their traditions and learn from their religion to walk upright lives on the Earth. And I believe that by and large (not in absolutely all cases, for one can find a bad apple in any barrel) Hindu Americans strengthen our country.

I see my philosophy of toleration as having two balanced ends: I respect the belief enough to declare it wrong, and I respect the person enough to want to be his neighbor. It seems to me, though, that most people hold only one end or the other of my balance pole. I know of, unfortunately, millions of Americans who wish to offer no welcome to anyone holding to some given religion with which they disagree. And I know of vast swaths of the American public who believe any religion is fine since none, they maintain, is especially true. But a high-wire artist who holds out her pole only to one side will fall off the wire.

Over my decades of reading his works, C. S. Lewis has both confirmed and shaped my view of religious toleration. One of the core themes of this beloved Christian author is that, while Christ alone is the Truth with a capital T, other religions are not wholly wrong and in fact reflect “splintered fragments of the true light.” Never is this policy clearer than in what I have long held as my favorite Lewis book, Till We Have Faces.

Till We Have Faces is correctly advertised as a retelling of a story from a religion other than Christianity: the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. When I first read the book, I had heard somewhere that it was Lewis’s least Christian book (among his nonacademic efforts), and it indeed seemed to me then that if the author had Christian ideas in mind, he had hidden them under many heavy layers of allegory and cultural translation. In later life, though, after learning more about Lewis (and more about Christianity), I see the apologist’s faith lying just under a surface of gossamer. Still the book works only if the reader is willing to agree that the answer to Orual’s problems lies in her accepting the worship of Aphrodite and her son. Lewis doesn’t even choose someone from the Greek pantheon that I can sympathize with like Athena or Apollo. I have to see the good in the worst parts of Greek religion in order to enjoy and understand the book and, in turn, see more good in the Christian religion.

One last note on toleration. My high-school English classes drilled into me that the shortened form of until was ‘til, not till. So Lewis’s title grates on me. But since he knew thing or two about the English language, I keep telling myself that the problem more probably lies with my high-school English program.

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