Sunday, November 28, 2010


I really don't know what I think until I get that sentence down.
--Joan Didion, Seattle Times, Nov. 18, 2005

Tomorrow is the birthday of Clive Staples Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and dozens of other works of fantasy, science fiction, and Christian philosophy. His biography traces a path from a “received” Protestant tradition in his childhood years, to atheism in his youth, to Catholicism in his mature years. Lewis’ struggle with religious belief--or the lack of it--as spelled out in his prolific and colorful writing, inspires today’s celebration of the Chinese virtue of Xin-xin (Faith).

“Xin-xin,” sometimes spelled Xinxin or Hsin-hsin, is most commonly translated by English writers as “Faith” or “Trust,” but also as “Believing,” “Confidence,” or even “Truth-telling.”  The root word xin has an exhiliarating potpourri of meanings, detailed by the imprisoned Chinese scholar and dissident Hu Shigen (whose story we will profile later on TTV). Hu himself explains:

An American student asked me, “Teacher, what does ‘Xin’ mean?”
I shot a look at “Xin,” and answered with a easy smile:
“It’s just your word letter in English. The left side is a person, and the right side is the character ‘speak,’ so combined it means ‘a person speaks.’ Writing a letter, of course, is speaking with a pen on paper.”

In other words, xin means “epistle.” But Hu goes on to tell his increasingly-baffled student that xin also can mean “believe” (as in, “I don’t believe you”) as well as “religious faith.” And it has at least four more meanings, Hu adds: “One is in the sense of ‘signal’ and ‘information;’ another is in the sense of a creed; the third trustworthiness, credit – both of course related to trust; and last, as it’s used in the phrases ‘wag one’s tongue too freely,’ ‘pick up something easily and casually,’ ‘walk aimlessly,’ ‘write at will’ – all of which mean roughly ‘do as you like.’ ” Hu finishes by saying that Xin-xin, in turn, could be translated into English as “Confidence.”

So, a word whose root has connotations of “writing,” (with an implication that if we write something, we must believe it), but also notions of “belief” and “confidence.” All of these meanings shine forth from the story of Lewis. How did a man who as a youth denied the existence of God, wind up one of greatest 20th century fantasy authors and lay apologists for Christianity?

I find a lot to like about C.S. Lewis, born to English parents in Northern Ireland. When he was four years old, his dog Jacksie was killed by a car, and C.S. announced to everyone that he was taking his dog’s name--and was known to his family as “Jack” forever after. (As a dog person, I confess, right there, he’s won me over!) As a child, Lewis loved stories of animals, especially Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories. Later, as an early teen, he read the Icelandic sagas and stories of Northern heroes, which he felt revealed the beauty of nature. (Sounds like a primitive Neopagan to me! And if he’d been born 50 years later, who knows?...)  

After going off to Oxford, he then entered World War I. He survived, but buried one of his best friends, Paddy Moore, whose family Lewis looked after from then on. After Paddy’s death, Lewis began his long, slow crawl back to religious Faith, and eventually to Christianity per se. Two major events propelled Lewis along this path. First, he encountered the writing of 19th century Scottish fantasist George MacDonald (whose story The Golden Key, by the way, served as the structural myth for this year’s California Witchcamp). He also became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, who shared his delight in the old stories of Scandinavia. Exchanges with Tolkien played a role in Lewis’ return to Belief, first to simple theism, and then, as he approached 30, to formal Christianity.

When I asked my twin, Kael, which of Lewis’ books best related to the virtue of Xin-xin, he cited The Great Divorce. In this semi-autobiographical story, modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a young man, who has committed suicide over a badly-ended love affair, travels by bus through a grey city that is an obvious metaphor for Hell. He and his companions meet the spirits of people they knew in life, who explain it is possible to leave the grey city for Heaven--a much brighter, joyful, and more substantial place. Despite the Hope of exit, most of the passengers give transparently self-deceptive excuses as to why they cannot leave the grey city.   

As Kael explained it, “The point of The Great Divorce is that people remain in Hell because they choose not to embrace Truth. Their fear keeps them prisoner.”

Which, for any Seeker on the path--be they Christian, Buddhist, Witch, or Humanist--sums up the task before us.

As a student of the virtues, I find Lewis interesting for his Belief that in Nature one can find laws of morality--which he perceives as echoes of Divine Intent. As Kathryn Lindskoog and G. F. Ellwood explain in an essay about Lewis,

Natural Law shows that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. However... Natural law obliges us to do the straight thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. Natural Law is hard.

No one doing the hard work of their path could quibble with this; the path to Self-Knowledge seems at once simple and yet almost impossible. Facing our Truth can be more frightening than facing a Lion.

Speaking of which: Some Pagans dislike Lewis’ Narnia stories for being what they see as thinly-veiled Christian catechisms that demonize Witches (the main villain in the stories being Jadis, the White Witch). But it’s more complicated than this. Narnia, in fact, contains loads of Pagan Gods and Goddesses, including Bacchus, Pomona, and Silenus; many Dryads, Naiads, Nymphs; a very impressive River God; and the Gods of a hostile country neighboring Narnia, Calormen. In The Four Loves, which I am reading now, Lewis implies that such entities are in constant communion with the Divine, and so are expressions of such. (Putting on my Buddhist hat--colored yellow, since I’m Gelugpa-- I’d say this jibes with Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, which accepts the existence many Gods and Goddesses but points out that Karma, like gravity, rules them all.)

In a scene in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, a soldier of Calormen, Emeth, tells Aslan (the Divine Lion that is the Christ analog for Narnia) that he has spent his life pursuing Tash, the main Deity of his land. Aslan replies, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” Almost identical words are spoken in The Great Divorce to the hero by his guide, the spirit of George MacDonald. To Lewis, Emeth’s sincere prayers, albeit to a different Deity, were just as valid as a Narnian’s to Aslan.

Was Lewis’, then, actually a Universalist? Yes, and no. No doubt being raised in the sectarian violence of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis had great appreciation of the literally diabolical (“dividing”) effects that differences of religious Faith produce. While Lewis did hold Belief in Christ as the representation of the Divine Truth, he did not claim, based on the story of Emeth from his Narnia books, that people of other traditions could not also connect with this Truth, which has both Benevolence and Ferocity ("He is not a tame Lion.") You can argue Lewis showed strong chauvinism towards Christianity, and he did.

I think Lewis “smells wrong” to Neopagans because he embraces the Divine in Transcendence, while Neopagans typically embrace the Divine in Immanence. For me, there is no better metaphor illustrating this difference than alternate versions of the hymn “Through All the World Below,” sung in its Quaker version here:

At the end of San Francisco’s Spiral Dance each Samhain, the choir sings this same song after the Cone is released. In the second stanza, the Christian version often goes “His springing waters rise/Fountains flow, rivers run/The mist that veils the sky hides the sun.” The Reclaiming version, on the other hand, starts, “She’s springing, waters rise...” The Divine doesn’t preside over (“trans”=“over”) the waters--She is within the waters (“im-” = “in”). And just as in quantum mechanics light can be explained sometimes as a particle, sometimes as a wave, with the ineffable Truth being neither, the Divine can be described as Transcendence and Immanence both. Probably, ultimately, it is neither, but that’s the best our small monkey brains can do.

If I had to dissect Xin-xin or Faith into underlying critical roots, I’d say two virtues must contribute in large and equal parts. One is Humility as to our ultimate ignorance--the Wonder we touched on in a prior post. Courage to move forward on our path despite this ignorance makes up the other, as touched on partly in past essays on Týr (Courage) and Honor.

Do you write or journal as part of your personal practice? What insights have you gained as to the nature of your underlying Belief this way? How did it leave you with Confidence? Can you relate to Lewis as his life wandered between Belief, non-belief, and Belief?

May we see the gates of Xin-xin, and perhaps make a home there.

1 comment:

  1. The Screwtape Letters and Pilgrims's Regress were my favorites by C.S. Lewis. Pilgrim's Regress actually made me experiment with resuming a Christian Faith for a week or two in the 70's.