Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Clear Voice Along the Beam

Michael Ward, in Planet Narnia (pg. 17 and 18), remarks on C.S. Lewis's great interest in Samuel Alexander's antithesis between "enjoyment" and "contemplation."  One of Lewis's biographers, Walter Hooper, writes that the influence of Alexander's book, 'Space, Time, and Deity' (in which the concept is explained) upon Lewis was "overwhelming."

The difference between enjoyment and contemplation is perhaps best described by Lewis in a short essay he wrote called Meditation in a Toolshed (link).  Here are the opening paragraphs for those who don't care to be bothered by the whole thing.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. 
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. 
But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. lie is, as they say, “in love”. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man's experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man's genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it. 
When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long. 
Looking at versus looking along (or within).  Lewis goes on to explain how both looking at and looking along, contemplating and enjoying, are not only necessary but also inescapable.  His main point, I think, is to criticize the modern thinking that is almost exclusively contemplative - a perspective that is often quite negative toward actions, statements, and values.  He says, "The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten... but the period of brow-beating has got to end."

A few years ago I wrote out some similar frustrations.  I did not have a great illustrative picture to go with it.  Nor were my words nearly so coherent judging by the lack of response I got from the people I shared it with.  I took issue with "case-making," the way in which we respond to questions or criticism toward our faith by making a case for our positions or values.  I suggested that this case-making frame of mind, and the response that it engenders, often works to invalidate the object of the case we are trying to make by justifying the context the questions or attacks come from.  In other words, to make a case is fundamentally grounded in playing by their rules.  Or, to use  Lewis's terms, if someone questions by "looking at the beam," and we respond with a "looking at" response, the whole enterprise will never be anything but "looking at" - from outside the beam.  If we concede the toolshed as the proving ground from the get-go then the trees and sun are forever out of reach.

I agree with Lewis that the period of brow-beating has to end, but I would also add that we need to concede that we have bought into it ourselves, and leave it behind. Much of how the Protestant world speaks seems to be contemplative in its language and strategy, at least the part of the Protestant world that fancies itself intelligent and relevant.   I believe that this is, in large part, because the Protestant churches have been about making cases since their beginning, against the RC church, and against themselves.  And it is no help that our Western education and academic system is thoroughly one that is about looking at the beam.  It is what we are trained in.  It is the air we breath.  And it has become a smog that has choked out enjoyment.

The hard part isn't so much about recognizing the great imbalance between contemplative vs. enjoyment.  Or recognizing the dangers of that imbalance.  The hard part is learning how to be people that can speak clearly and confidently from a place along the beam.  How do we enjoy better, and communicate our enjoyment with delight and gravitas?  I know that in my own case, in the rare times I succeed, I quickly step all over it with at-the-beam talk.