He said, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. Genesis 22:1-14After a lifetime of explaining God’s existence and love to the dubious Oxford community, C.S. Lewis realized he had discovered the true nature of God. “God,” he said scathingly, “is a vivisectionist.”
Lewis had been a controversial figure at Oxford because he was a devout Christian.
His faith set him apart from the cynical dons who hoisted bitters with him at the Eagle and Child pub and listened to him drone on about God, Jesus, and holy writ. The skeptical intelligentsia, who believed the existence of God had been pretty much dismissed by modern science and Darwin, snored and scoffed ale out of their jaded snouts when Lewis spoke.
But Clive Staples Lewis – Jack to his friends – held fast to his theological moorings. As a specialist in myths and legends, he was not disturbed by coincidental repetitions in other cultures, including common myths that a god assumed the form of a bird and impregnated a virgin with his divine progeny. Zeus took the form of a swan to inseminate Leda, and he was one of a long line of fertile fowl in search of virgins. In the Middle East, in fact, God appeared as a dove to a young Galilean girl and left her with a sacred swelling in her belly.
Lewis might have dismissed all these stories as fanciful fantasies generated by humanity’s common biological gene pool. But the devout Church of England layman thought he discerned a greater truth. What if one of these legends was the true myth that validated all the others? And what if the multi-cultural repetition of like myths was God’s way pointing humankind to the ultimate reality?
Lewis gradually emerged as one of the great interpreters of the Christian faith. His many books – including The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and Mere Christianity – are still best sellers. As his reputation grew, even Lewis’ most cynical critics came to respect him.
But toward the end of his life, even Jack Lewis’ faith began to crumble. He married an American divorcee, Joy Davidman, initially to enable her to settle in England as permanent resident. But as often happens, his platonic relationship morphed to passionate love and the already married couple moved in with each other. It was a too, too British romance.
And Lewis told himself it was God’s doing. Through his love of Joy Davidman, Lewis felt, God was rewarding him with a metaphor of God’s unconditional love for all.
Then Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer.
Lewis was devastated. But the couple prayed intensely for God’s healing. And, as is often the case in these tragedies, Joy experienced an inexplicable remission. The couple rejoiced at what they felt was a miraculous cure, and interpreted it as a sign of God’s healing power.
But the remission did not last long. After a series of setbacks, Joy died on July 13, 1960.
“You must rely on your faith,” Lewis’ rector told the grieving widower.
But Lewis shook his head. “No,” he said. “This is simply a mess.”
Lewis felt utterly betrayed by a God who seemed to have condemned him to a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions: joy at the love he had for his wife, grief when she was diagnosed with cancer, joy when she appeared to be cured, grief when the cancer returned, hope that a loving God would still intervene and restore her to health, and desolation when she died.
How could God be so cruel?
The story of Lewis’ return to faith is recorded in A Grief Observed, one of his greatest works. The book is often read by bereaved persons who struggle with the loss of a loved one.
Lewis concluded that when he thought God was promising his wife would recover, he was imposing his own hopes, fears, and delusions on God’s voice.
In fact, as fervently as we may pray for those things God already knows we want, God does not promise to do our will.
“We were promised sufferings,” Lewis wrote. “They were part of the program. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' and I accept it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of curse it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
Lewis said his grief was “like an amputation” in which an essential part of his being was painfully removed. And – far from being a vivisectionist – God’s aim is to use our grief to build us up, not tear us down.
“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality,” Lewis wrote. “He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”
Clive Staples Lewis died on November 22, 1963. His death went largely unnoticed because it was on the same day President Kennedy’s death plunged the world into griefs observed on a massive scale.
But the legacy he left with us is important. His message is this: be very careful, when you think you are hearing God’s voice, that you are not actually responding to your own hopes, desires, or prejudices.
Usually it’s difficult to tell.
Was it really God’s voice that spoke to Abraham? Was it really God who, in an act of cruelty so unlike the God of love, ordered Abraham to kill and burn his beloved son?
Was God really testing Abraham? Or was Abraham testing God, pushing himself in God’s face, forcing God to see Abraham’s importance and willingness to do anything to benefit from God’s power?
If that is the case, it’s fortunate God was able to bring Abraham back to reality at the last minute.
But what if Abraham never got the message? What if he was never able to tell the difference between God’s voice and his own inner illusions?
This is a vital question, for we live in a world torn apart by persons who can’t tell the difference.
Congregations are torn apart because quarreling members are deluded that God is telling them to shun and reject those who disagree with them.
Denominations are divided by debates on theological and ecclesial issues including styles of baptism, restrictions imposed on ordination, attitudes toward sexual orientation, and other issues on which each side claims to be the exclusive auditors of God’s voice.
Deluded churches claim special messages from God about when Jesus is returning again, or about God’s hatred for immigrants, persons of other races, or LBGT persons.
So called pro-life Christians hear God’s voice calling them to intimidate and murder healthcare professionals who perform abortions.
Taken to extreme levels – as happens every day – many persons of faith hear God’s voice calling them to
attack Muslim worshippers,
beat same-sex couples on the street,
bully their classmates,
beat and stone their daughters who have dated persons of other religions,
kidnap hundreds of children to make a point about making their society theologically pure,
use rape as a weapon of war,
strap explosives to their waists to kill dozens of innocent persons,
or hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings.
It hardly takes a dash of discernment to discover God’s real voice is not present in any of these actions.
All that present is the antithesis of the God of love: our illusions, our prejudices, our hostilities, our megalomaniacal drive to force inferior people to believe what we presume God is telling us.
But God’s real voice is not calling us to attack those with whom we disagree, but to place ourselves in a loving – and occasionally risky – dialogue with them.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.
“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
As always, God’s truth voice speaks to us in counter-intuitive irony.
We hear God in weakness, not in belligerence.
And we hear God in love, not in hate.
Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist reminded us how to hear God’s voice:
I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Psalm 89:1-2)