When metaphors become real

Continuing from the last installment from C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress.

**

….. As a man in a dream talks without fear to his dead friend, and only afterwards bethinks himself, “It was a ghost! I have talked with a ghost!” and wakes screaming: even so John sprang up as he saw what he had done.

“I have been praying,” he said. “It is the Landlord under a new name. It is the rules and the black hole and the slavery dressed out in a new fashion to catch me. And I am caught…”

But this was insupportable to him and he said that he had only fallen into a metaphor. Even Mr. Wisdom had confessed that Mother Kirk and the Stewards gave an account of the truth in picture writing. And one must use metaphors. The feelings and the imagination needed that support. “The great thing,” said John, “is to keep the intellect free from them: to remember that they are metaphors.”

John continues onward but the trail becomes so treacherous he finds he must call upon “Mr. Wisdom’s Absolute incessantly….He knew now that he was praying, but he thought he had drawn the fangs of that knowledge.” Finally, the path becomes so dark that he fears falling and stops to rest, hungry and thirsty as he is.

Then I dreamed that once more a Man came to him in the darkness and said, “You must pass the night where you are, but I have brought you a loaf and if you crawl along the ledge ten paces more you will find that a little fall of water comes down the cliff.”

“Sir,” said John. “I do not know your name and I cannot see your face, but I thank you. Will you not sit down and eat, yourself?”

“I am full and not hungry,” said the Man. “And I will pass on. But one word before I go. You cannot have it both ways.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Your life has been saved all this day by crying out to something which you call by many names, and you have said to yourself that you used metaphors.”

“Was I wrong, sir?”

“Perhaps not. But you must play fair. If its help is not a metaphor, neither are its commands. If it can answer when you call, then it can speak without your asking. If you can go to it, it can come to you.”

Afterword

John is confronted with the shortcomings of thinking of God as Universal Spirit, a great Mind of which we are each a small part. It’s easy to picture it, like a great mist or nebula of stars high above us. But does this Mind truly have consciousness as we do? If so, then it must have a will of its own. And it must be able to initiate and not merely respond. (And how can we continue to refer to it with the neutral pronoun “it” when the only minds we know are either male or female?)

Avoiding such questions can keep us out of dangerous waters for a while. Universal Spirit, like the God of monism or pantheism, is a rather lame creature. As Lewis writes in another book, “The pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf.

Jewish and Christian thought teach a concept quite different. Many would like to dispense with the Bible’s apparent metaphors for God too, but, Lewis writes, “it is with a shock that we discover [the Christian images of kingship] to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters–when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes besides you in the dark. But what If He were searching for us? Someone wholly other, such as you experience when you are fishing and there is a sudden tug at the end of the line. It’s alive!”

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