Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mere Christianity, Zen, and Being Saved After All that We Can Do

Lately, I've been really impressed by C. S. Lewis.

Though I read the Chronicles of Narnia a long time ago, I have refrained from reading his more adult-oriented books for a long time. This is partially out of laziness and partially because I was suffering under the delusion that an orthodox theologian and author could not be profound. I could not have been more wrong. I read the Screwtape Letters first, and was shocked. What I thought would be satirical moralizing was actually full of penetrating spiritual insights. I soon become hooked on Lewis. Ravenous for more, I began Mere Christianity. I was initially disappointed, as its beginning was surprisingly un-profound. However, I soon discovered that it was due to Lewis' covering of the basics. As soon as he swam into "deeper waters", the amazing spiritual insights came back. Just before I began writing this, I came across one that was so amazing that felt compelled to share it and the connections I made with it. That's what this blog post is about.

The stupendous spiritual insight about which this post concerns can be found in the two chapters where Lewis discusses the phenomenon of faith. In the first chapter he gives a fairly practical definition, namely that faith is "the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods".  A little un-profound, eh? No matter. He spends the next one-and-a-half chapters defining faith in a second, greater way. He begins by making the following observation:

"The main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practise [sic] the Christian virtues is that we fail."

In other words, the inevitable result of an attempt to follow the Christian virtues to the letter is failure. We will fall short, one way or another. However, this does not mean that we should give up at the get-go. On the contrary, the realization of our inadequacy and the tireless effort that results in it are integral to our spiritual development. Lewis explains how in the next passage:

"All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, 'You must do this. I can't.'"

We give up. The ultimate result of  your continued trying and the subsequent realization of your shortcomings is that you stop trying to be virtuous (in a sense) and instead "leave it to God". This does not mean that you cease to be a virtuous person. Instead, if you have really handed yourself over to God, it means that you are trying to be virtuous in a new, less worried way. In Lewis' words, "not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already". Furthermore, this giving up means that you put all your trust in God, trusting that Christ will share his perfect obedience with you and make you a man more like himself.

Essentially, Lewis observes that if you give yourself up to God after trying as hard as you can and inevitably failing, God will act through you to make you a virtuous person. This struck me as incredibly familiar, in two ways. One of them will probably be familiar to any practicing Mormon, but I'll treat that second. First, this reminded me of the teacher-student interactions in Zen Buddhism (as I understand it from the various Alan Watts lectures I have listened to). In Zen, the goal is to eliminate the illusion of the ego. However, Zen acknowledges (perhaps implicitly) that nearly everyone will cling to their ego-hood no matter how much you try to persuade them that it doesn't exist. It is like a a person who is convinced beyond all doubt that the world is flat. How do you convince them otherwise? You can't persuade them, so the only way to show them the error of their belief is to actually walk them around the circumference of the world. Similarly, a Zen master tries to show the student the ego is illusory by demonstrating it to him. He does this by presenting him with double-binds (as Watts terms them), such as a challenge "to be spontaneous". Obviously, the attempt to be spontaneous is directly opposed to actual spontaneity. The idea is that after you have engaged in this futile struggle for too long, you will realize that the whole game is based on the idea of the ego. It is the ego that is trying to be spontaneous, and it is impossible to try to be spontaneous because the ego doesn't exist! So as soon as the Zen student sincerely gives up on the double bind, he realizes the illusion of his ego. I trust you see the similarity. Just as the Zen student's giving up on the impossible double-bind leads to the realization of his ego's illusion, the Christian's giving up on the impossible quest to follow Christian virtues leads to his salvation.

If one recognizes some truth from Zen, (which I do) we can make some important connections. First, we realize that Christian virtues can be seen as a double-bind. It is impossible to follow them exactly, so perhaps they have some purpose behind them other than simply the quest to obey. That brings us to the second connection. Perhaps there is something in common between realizing the ego is an illusion and letting Christ take over. Here is my postulate: Christ atoned for the entire world. One could say that he experienced everything that can be experienced. It all has its commonality in Christ, as he brings everything together in his infinite atonement. Thus, we cannot say that anything exists separately from anything else. However, if one tries to perform Christian morals, inevitably your first attitude is opposed to that truth: we all see ourselves as alone. So when we give ourselves up to Christ, we acknowledge the connection that binds us to God, and realize that we cannot do anything without God doing it as well. But here's the key: we must labor under the delusion that we try to perform virtuous acts on our own because there is no escaping it by evasion. We must labor through it until the very impossibility of the quest reveals the escape to us. Furthermore, perhaps that is what the commandments are for: they are a gauntlet through which we lose our isolationist delusions.

The second connection that Mere Christianity spiritual insight (and the Zen connotations it has in my mind) has is a oft-repeated Mormon aphorism that "we are saved after all that we can do". I used to not like this phrase, as to me it reeked of moralism and earn-your-way-to-heaven theology. I now understand that does not merely consist of God deciding what is "all that we can do" and then rewarding us accordingly. Instead, it means that, in this life or the next, our tireless effort directly causes the realization that leads to our salvation. Indeed, I believe that C. S. Lewis's spiritual insight is precisely what this aphorism is talking about: when we have tried as hard as we can, the inevitable realization that we cannot possibly achieve salvation alone causes us to give ourselves up to God.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad you have found C.S. Lewis' religious writings. I haven't read much of his writings, but of the little I have read, I see many insights into my own personal beliefs.