Out of the Silent Planet and Into the Heavens

(Note: this post was inspired by a book discussion at Holy Name Cathedral in December 2018. Spoilers ahead.)

C.S. Lewis’s cosmic trilogy begins with Out of the Silent Planet, one of his earliest published works of fiction. Three men from Earth travel to Malacandra (Mars) on a spaceship. Devine is motivated by riches. Weston is interested in colonization. And the protagonist, Ransom, is forced by the others to come along to satisfy (what the other two perceive to be) a sacrificial demand from a Malacandrian overlord.

The book follows Ransom as he explores Malacandra and encounters its three races of rational creatures. Sorns are tall and thin and value scientific knowledge; hrossa are tall and furry and value the poetic; pfifltriggi are forest-dwellers who are artisans and craftsmen. They each have their own languages but also speak Malacandrian, a language understood by all.

Out of the Silent Planet is brief and its plot is straightforward. Scholars who discuss the cosmic trilogy rarely spend much time on it, typically preferring to devote more attention to the second and third books in the series. I agree with them in favoring the subsequent books. But the first book does have some memorable passages and ideas. And, as it comes so early in Lewis’ publishing career, we can find in it seeds of themes that would grow to pervade his later writing, especially his fiction.

Many of the noteworthy observations come from Lewis’ depiction of an unfallen world inhabited by three rational races. As Ransom encounters the hrossa and begins to learn their language, he slowly discovers that they do not suffer from the concupiscence of humanity. Ransom is surprised to find that, in this unfallen world, only the insane violate moral norms: “Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversions.”

Ransom moves from being mystified by the hrossa to realizing that the hrossa are straightforward and we are mysterious:

At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle…. That the hrossa should have such instincts was mildly surprising; but how came it that the instincts of the hrossa so closely resembled the unattained ideals of that far-divided species Man whose instincts were so deplorably different? What was the history of Man?

Particularly surprising is the unfallen view of danger and death. The hrossa view the predatorial hnakra with thunderous excitement, rather than with mortal fear as we would. They are excited by the possibility of overcoming the hnakra. They are more spurred on to fight and win than they are deterred by the possibility of failure. The risk adds meaning and value to life:

The hnakra is our enemy, but he is also our beloved.

I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.

In contrast, humans are considered “wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it.” Ransom worries about the risks that the Malacandrians do not worry about. The unfallen see clearly the moral risks taken by the fallen, and the fallen see the physical risks undertaken without concern by the unfallen. The Oyarsa (the planet’s angelic guardian) tells Ransom: “The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.”

Focusing on one virtue to the detriment of the others makes one “bent”, and a bent person is more dangerous than a broken one. Devine is broken, only wanting wealth. Weston is bent. He thinks he’s doing good. The Oyarsa says Weston can therefore be rehabilitated, but also that he is more dangerous than Devine. A merely-bent person is more dangerous than a broken person. This is one strand of a frequently-expressed theme in Lewis’ writings: the most dangerous temptations are those that appear good (cf. The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, Till We Have Faces, inter alia).

The Oyarsa interrogates Weston: “He [i.e., the bent Oyarsa on Earth] has only bent you; but this Thin One [i.e., Devine] who sits on the ground he has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed. He is now only a talking animal and in my world he could do no more evil than an animal. If he were mine I would unmake his body, for the hnau in it is already dead. But if you were mine I would try to cure you. Tell me, Thick One, why did you come here?”

Weston responds with an explanation based on colonialist ideals, but he doesn’t speak the Malacandrian language. Ransom attempts to translate Weston’s defense, but this is difficult because Ransom has only learned the basics of the language during his brief time on Malacandra. The reader is treated to Weston’s refined version as well as Ransom’s translation, which is faithful but simplified and halting. In the process of translation, Weston’s speech is stripped of its sophistication and sounds absurd.

A theme throughout the cosmic trilogy is the idea that evil uses language to hide itself in flowery terms. But the young, simple, and innocent see through the nonsense. This idea reappears in Ransom’s inner monologues in the second book in the trilogy, Perelandra, and expands as a major theme in the third book, That Hideous Strength.

Earlier I mentioned that scholars don’t spend as much time on Out of the Silent Planet as its sequels. However, what is near-universally cited is the passage describing Ransom’s conversion from the concept of “space” to that of “the heavens” as his ship travels outside the Earth’s atmosphere:

But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—the heavens which declared the glory…

This realization takes place early in the story as Ransom is leaving Earth. By the end of the book, Ransom’s sense of the life of space is broadened further, as he learns that it is teeming with eldila (angel-like creatures). When he returns to Earth, he seeks to convert others to this way of thinking. Near the end of the book, Ransom and his collaborator, the unnamed narrator, state: “If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a changeover from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”

Lewis’s own “changeover” was driven by his discovery of the beauty, richness, and systematicity of the Medieval cosmos with its seven planetary bodies: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. He continued to pursue the ideas and ideals of the Medieval cosmos throughout his fiction and academic work. Perelandra and That Hideous Strength further explore the archetypes of the heavenly bodies and how they relate to cosmic masculinity and femininity, as well as to courage, war, music, and language. Each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia is infused with elements of one of the seven planetary bodies (cf. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia). Lewis’s final book, The Discarded Image, studies the centrality of the Medieval cosmological model in Medieval thought and its influence on their theology, science, and history. In its epilogue, he writes of the Medieval model: “Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.”

Lewis’ study of Medieval literature, in particular the Medieval cosmos, deeply affected him with its richness, order, and archetypal clarity. It was not because the Medieval cosmos was literally (scientifically) true, but because its structure and archetypes possessed and communicated truths. Through Medieval literary study he was elevated to the heavens and upon his return to Earth he, like Ransom and the unnamed, Lewis-like narrator of Out of the Silent Planet, sought to instill the same spirit in his readers.

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The Busybody of the Ages

The mascot of our age is The Busybody: scampering from house to house, dashing up to windows to see what people are doing, and trumpeting the vice of everything found. If a house has no vices, the busybody redefines vice in order to find something to gossip about.

This is not unique to our time. People have always identified strongly with the norms of their cultures and ostracized those who violate them.

What is unique, however, is the lack of a conscious morality. Whatever the collective busybody happens to think is good becomes good. The present tide of opinion determines the cultural norms of right and wrong, but without ever defining what those words mean. At the same time, the stakes for violating cultural norms are being raised. We live on an unconscious, yet increasingly intolerant, moral plane. A Moebius plane that twists upon itself, on which none can walk for very long before they find themselves upside down.

Past cultures were just as intolerant. However, they were more honest about their intolerance and about its reasons. Today, when confronted with a new social phenomenon, well-intentioned individuals seek a policy from the culture. Their attitude is: “Tell me how I should feel about this.” This is especially true when a minority group asks for a deeper understanding of their condition. Then, when the majority have heard the answer, they adopt that policy as an infallible timeless moral principle. Anyone who disagrees is subject to public shaming.

But the busybody’s ethos contradicts itself. The unfortunate souls who grasp at scraps of culture to formulate moral judgments end up sinking into a morass of untenability. Hence we have monstrosities like the pro-choice ethical vegetarian, the pro-life warhawk, the ideological scientist, and whatever contradictory combination of principles you and I cling to so dearly.

In The Common Man, Chesterton wrote: “Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.” I wonder what he would write now. Who today even desires to have a “complete and conscious philosophy”? But if we do not seek this, how will we avoid error in the future? If cultural norms shift, how will we decide what to think? Are we doomed to drift, unmoored, forever waiting for the most vocal among us to inform us of our own views?

What does a father do when the kids are squabbling? Take them to court to determine who said what and which of the two children should be forced to pay millions of dollars in damages to the other? No! The father holds both children responsible for indulging in the argument. He understands that the fight does not help his children. It does not lead to virtue. It does not lead to change. He loves both children and sees them as infinitely more valuable than their opposing viewpoints in the present conflict.

God is our father. Do you think He will exalt one side for being right and condemn their opponents for being wrong? Or do you think He might be unhappy with our endless squabbling? While we blame one another for evil in our world, God recognizes the work of the tempter, the one who distorts reality until we adopt absurd views and antagonize those who disagree with us, the co-author of every lie, the busybody of the current age and all ages.

Wedding Dogmatism Threatens to Destroy Us All

“The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas.” –Chesterton, Heretics

I recently bought a charcoal-colored suit for my wedding. The sales associate insisted that I should not wear black shoes with this suit. After I pressed him, he reiterated more strongly: “It is my personal and professional opinion that you should not wear black shoes with a charcoal suit.” Taken aback by his certitude, I risked a few other questions about men’s fashion. He dutifully rattled off the canonical answer to each, leaving me the unmistakable impression that I would be considered a lunatic for daring to mismatch my belt and shoes, or for wearing black shoes with a non-black suit. I couldn’t remember the last time I heard so many baseless dogmatic proclamations in such a short time, recited without trace of accommodation or justification!

But of course this is not restricted to fashion. My fiancée and I have found this simultaneous sense of surprised indignation and unfounded certitude throughout wedding planning. We discovered that we are required to send paper invitations. Electronic invitations are simply out of the question. When asked, wedding forum commenters refuse to provide any advice on how one might send out electronic invitations, because they wish to avoid lending even the slightest shred of respectability to such an outrageous idea. One commenter even compared the request to a person asking: “What’s the most efficient way to burn down my house?” No joke.

Similar dogmas were found relating to honeyfunds (don’t do them), addressing envelopes by hand or using printed mailing labels (obviously by hand), wording on invitations (subtle yet reliable distinctions depending on whether the ceremony is at a place of worship), balancing DIY and professionally-prepared wedding accoutrement to avoid a cookie-cutter wedding while also avoiding inordinate originality (a balance that seems unattainable by design, thereby considerately providing everyone with something to complain about), the necessity of centerpieces (I can’t seem to find anyone sympathetic to my No Centerpieces idea), and nearly any detail involving registries.

Surely this is all just good manners and good party planning, right?

I wish it were that simple. The cost of a wedding can delay marriage and childbearing. The cost is not just monetary. And not just time. There are all sorts of stress costs: dealing with the expectations of family members, limiting the guest list, making a thousand unimportant decisions (what color board should the cake be placed on?), and reading hundreds of Yelp reviews to choose vendors.

But back to my title. Delaying marriage leads to delaying childbearing, decreasing overall fertility rates. Many are concerned about overpopulation. But the projections also show a real possibility of population collapse in the coming centuries (see the “low fertility” model here). Your facebook feed might be overflowing with new babies, but consider that if each reproductively-able person in the world has only two children, we will go extinct.

I’m doing my part. My bravest act of rebellion so far was to add protein bars to our registry. Wedding dogmas be damned.

Atheism is Unscientific

It surprises me when people herald atheism as a scientific conclusion.* Atheism is not the verdict of science. Science would prefer that the atheist remain an agnostic.

Some atheists claim there is no evidence for the existence of God. I am surprised that any educated person could say this.

Ironically, it reminds me of the creationist who says there is no evidence for evolution. In fact, there is abundant evidence for evolution. Perhaps the creationist decides to ignore the evidence, or perhaps he goes to great lengths to interpret it in such a way that it does not suggest evolution. Clearly, both attitudes are disingenuous. They suggest the existence of an underlying dogma that influences how he views the question.

So, if an atheist decides to ignore the evidence for God or to interpret it to suggest that God does not exist, I would similarly suggest that an underlying dogma might be present.

The fact is that there is abundant evidence for evolution, and there is abundant evidence for God. Some of the latter is recent and has been examined by scientists. In some cases, they can currently offer no explanation as to what occurred (see, for example, the work done by the Lourdes Medical Bureau). I will devote future posts to further discussion of evidence like this.

In light of such evidence, what should be the response of a scientist? Conclude that God exists? Conclude that God doesn’t exist? Both are equally unsatisfactory. The scientist should be able to extricate herself from the need to conclude about a particular piece of unexplainable evidence. Science does not currently have the technology to make a comprehensive examination here, but it might in the future, so we can hold off our conclusion until then.

But some seem averse to this. I have witnessed it myself. The scientifically-inclined atheist finds a way to explain the phenomena that is consistent with his worldview, even when the scientists who directly studied the evidence will not dare do so. Ironically, this is exactly what many believers do when they encounter these same phenomena!  Both atheists and theists interpret evidence to support their presuppositions.

To be fair, I think most atheists know this. I think their attitudes are compensatory. They’re reacting to the surety shown by believers. Further, I acknowledge that humans desire to understand the universe and so will often commit to particular beliefs that are not yet fully supported by data. The small number of agnostics in the world testifies to this. I am sympathetic to this desire. My point here is that when a person commits with certitude to a conclusion, it is a statement of personal belief, not a statement of science (as I’ve noted previously).

But there’s an additional problem for atheism. The only evidence for atheism is philosophical evidence. There is simply no evidence in support of atheism that is based on facts or science. Nor can there ever be. How could there be evidence for the negation of the supernatural? I’ll discuss this in future posts as well.

But for now, I beg you: if you are an atheist, please don’t mention science in your apologeticus!

* While “atheism” can mean many things, here I’ll assume it means naturalism, i.e., the belief that nature is “all there is.”

Love Desires Reality

Love is a highly polysemous word. One can love wine or New York or a spouse or a friend or a family member, and all of these loves are different. Much has been written about the different loves from a Christian perspective (cf. The Four Loves), often appealing to the multiple Greek words for love (storge, philia, eros, agape, etc.) used in the New Testament.

Some Christians lament that these are all translated into the single word love in English translations, as it can obscure which sense is meant in context. But while there is certainly a truth reflected by the multiplicity of Greek terms, I think there is an additional truth in the English conflation. There are commonalities across types of love that justify the use of a single word.

I think one commonality is suggested by the poem “Devotion” by Robert Frost:

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to the ocean—
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting an endless repetition.

The word choice evokes the constancy of the shore, though in reality every shore is continually changing its shape in response to waves. Thus the constancy in love lies not in rigidity, but in a perpetual willingness to reorient the self in response to the reality of the beloved.

In fact, the shore finds its very shape through its response to the waves. Our identities become formed by our continual response to what we love. Some may bristle at this, seeing it as overly accommodating; there is indeed a self-sacrificing element to it. But also consider this passage from C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:

All reality is iconoclastic; the earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality.*

Regardless of the type of love, and no matter how painful or humbling or disillusioning it may be, the authentic lover desires the reality of his beloved.

  • Regarding love of God: this is perhaps the love that most obviously requires our malleability, and yet we cling so strongly to our personal ideas of God. Lewis writes, again in A Grief Observed: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast.”
  • Regarding self-love, I think inauthentic self-love requires no reorientation of the self, while authentic self-love is similar to loving something external. I think Walker Percy (cf. Lost in the Cosmos) and C.S. Lewis (cf. Till We Have Faces) might agree that the reality of the self is no easier to discover than the reality of anotherOne must strive to see and adjust to the reality of his self if he is ever to love it (cf. The Art of Loving).
  • If you’re wondering how all of this can relate to love of things, even a thing as mundane as, say, coffee, read this proclamation of love from Four Barrel.

*Thanks to Jeremy Pierre for the Lewis quote and excellent discussion here.

Conversational Projectiles and Control

You can learn a lot about a person by how he conducts a conversation, especially in a group.

I imagine it as a game of catch.  I try to get everyone involved in the game.

But we all know that one person—the ball hog—who catches every conversational projectile thrown near him without offering anything in return.  Even worse, he plays catch with himself, meandering from one story to the next.

Why does this happen?  What is the ball hog worried about?

Well, receiving a conversational projectile grants power. All others are attentive to him for that moment.  My guess is that he doesn’t want to give up the power of attention once he has it.  This might be due to an insecurity or unsatisfied need.  Maybe it’s subconscious: “If I throw this ball to someone else, I might never get it back…”

It’s awkward trying to catch a ball that a person’s throwing to himself, so I don’t do it.  I let them juggle.  Maybe that’s what they need in that moment.

But I wish they could trust that everyone else is on their team, and occasionally throw back to us. Then we could show we are willing to keep engaging with them, in spite of any anxiety they may feel.

I think this situation is mirrored in our relationships with God.

Each of us is tempted to become a ball hog. We are terrified about giving God too much control over our lives. We want God to give us every gift and attend to our every need, like a genie.

But if we can actually surrender some of this control over our lives, we find that God doesn’t squirrel it away for himself and leave us empty-handed. He throws back to us more than we ever expected to receive. But God can only do this if we keep throwing the ball back to Him.

Science and Provability

Pop science journalists toss around words like prove when chronicling scientific discoveries. I often wonder what exactly they mean by this, and what readers must think. I fear that both journalist and reader attribute a certainty to scientific statements that is unjustified and unjustifiable.

Regardless of what is actually evoked by the word prove, let’s use the mathematical definition below for the sake of drawing distinctions. To prove a statement means to establish its truth beyond possibility of retraction. Proving a statement is true means it can never later be proved false.*

With this definition, no statement about the universe has ever been, or could ever be, proved. Every scientific statement could conceivably be retracted one day. Provable statements only appear in formal worlds like logic and pure mathematics.

Now, one can propose a mathematical model of some biological process and then prove statements about that model, but it is impossible to prove that those statements are true about the actual biological process that we observe in nature. Even if observations and experiments repeatedly point to the same conclusion, this does not guarantee that someday a new observation won’t call it into question.

Similarly, we cannot prove that any historical event actually occurred. What we commonly refer to as a fact is not a statement that can be proved. Though overwhelmingly likely, new evidence could call any historical fact into question.

In short, we can never establish with certainty the truth or falsehood of any statement about the universe. This is a fundamental limitation of science.

All scientists know it. It is not new or controversial.

In fact, this limitation makes science more interesting. Scientists are free to question the assumptions and conclusions of previous generations. They can develop better mechanisms for experimentation and observation. They can use their intellect to analyze the evidence and theorize. This process is not a proof, but it is honest work toward uncovering truths about the universe.

The problem is that non-scientists do not always understand this limitation. Read the comments section of any popular science article about physics or evolutionary biology. You will find commenters with unwavering faith in the ability of science to prove assertions about physical reality. But no. All science can do is formulate hypotheses, obtain and arrange evidence, and make arguments based on the evidence.

When anyone—scientist or layperson—makes a conclusive scientific statement, it is a statement of personal belief made by an individual, not a conclusion to which all are compelled.

Some may be troubled by the unprovability of science. I am not. To me it means that we all retain legitimate free will when interpreting the universe. Obviously, some theories are much more likely than others. But we still have the freedom to reason and draw conclusions based on evidence, and science can never compel us to concede this freedom.

*Assuming the proof is valid. Furthermore, not all true formal statements can be proved. However, it is still the case that there exist formal statements for which there exist valid proofs. My point is that this is not the case for scientific statements.

Fiction, Grace, and Flannery O’Connor

A writer is like a god. He creates a universe. He populates it with characters. Good writing feels like a new creation that operates under the same laws as our own. It feels like the characters have free will. Everything that happens feels like it could happen. After creating the universe and the characters, the writer lets things play out.

Of course, not all writers work this way; perhaps characters are incrementally realized with each choice they make. But the sum of their choices expresses a consistency that reflects back on the writer’s initial vision. Consistency of character is an unbreakable law. A writer will never violate her characters by letting one act in a way that is out-of-character, just as God will never force us to do anything against our will.

Flannery O’Connor creates ugly, flawed characters. Then she tries to save them by sending them moments of grace. But she rarely uses angels or even mystical experience. She uses the most mundane of channels: other ugly, flawed characters. Unsurprisingly, the grace often gets mangled as it travels through the giver. Maybe it’s never received. Or it’s received but mutilated and, therefore, rejected. One can hope, at least, that the transmission had some positive effect on the transmitter (cf. Wise Blood), though it is always meant for more.

Maybe God’s grace is not reaching people because we reject it when it comes to us. Or we bring ourselves to accept it—reluctantly with a sort of self-important magnanimity—but we perceive it as an end in itself, intended for ourselves. What if this grace is actually something we are responsible for transmitting to others? What if God depends on us to pass it along as His intended way of reaching those people?

We often struggle to understand why something in our lives has occurred. We think we’re the tragic heroes of our own stories. But each of us is also a character in someone else’s story. Maybe the unexplainable event in our lives is not really about us. Maybe it’s about the people who can receive grace through it. We often think of ourselves as perfect little angels in a universe designed just for us. But more often I think we’re ugly, flawed characters in someone else’s story… that grace can nevertheless work through.